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April 06, 2013

Genetic Twists of Fate

Posted by: Dave Ryman

April 6th is James Watson's birthday. Watson is credited as a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. To commerate this, Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston write about their book, Genetic Twists of Fate. Genetic Twists of Fate is available in paperback on April 15th.

In 1944 Erwin Schrödinger published a book entitled What is Life?”  By then physicists, like Schrödinger (who won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his contributions to quantum theory), were looking for new scientific frontiers, and the forces that organize and replicate organisms were mostly mysterious.  

That same year brought proof that DNA carries the code of life, a discovery that culminated in the morning of Saturday, Feb. 28, 1953, with Jim Watson’s epiphany of how the structure of DNA explains the basis heredity. Watson’s and his collaborator Francis Crick’s declaration that day to the lunchtime crowd at the Eagle Pub that they ‘had discovered the secret of life’ launched an era of discovery that revealed in great detail the processes and principles of life.  

Much of the general public doesn’t know the extent to which we’ve answered the question Schrödinger posed almost 70 years ago. So Stanley Fields and I set out to make the answers clear in a book that tackles some of the central questions about genetics:  Why do we resemble our parents more than any other set of parents?  Does cancer run in families?  How much of our behavior is influenced by our genes?  

The answers are wrapped in stories that hinge on the inheritance of one minuscule change rather than another in the human genetic code: a Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose career was born of the genetic misfortune that struck her child; a seductive actress who romanced the leading men of the day until she lost her mind.  

We recount notable cases in the annals of medicine: a forgetful woman whose doctor gave his name to a disease that afflicts millions; a young diabetic nearing death while waiting for the first batches of insulin.  And we describe ordinary citizens facing extraordinary challenges: a mother falsely accused of poisoning her infant son; mountain-climbing brothers at risk for a deadly neurological disease.  

Along the way we introduce some of our fellow biologists responsible for the incredible advances in genetics: a far-ranging thinker who tackled a cattle disease and in the process discovered how rat poison can be used to treat heart attacks, and a German woman who confronted orthodoxy and laid bare how organisms arise from a single cell.  

Our book is not a genetics text; its chapters are meant to be quickly consumed and easily digested. And after finishing the last chapter we believe readers will be able to answer the question, “What is Life?”

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