Vast tracts of the human genome once written off as “junk DNA” have been found not to be junk at all. The international Encode project has found that, instead, this DNA regulates the rest, switching genes on or off as required, and helping to make sure that liver cells make liver enzymes, for example, while hair cells make hair.
The discovery – which puts new treatments for diseases such as cancer and diabetes on the horizon – is being hailed as the most important step forward in genetics since the sequencing of the human genome in 2000. What better time, then, to revisit the literature?
• Start with The Language of the Genes (Flamingo, Dh53) by the acclaimed popular science writer Steve Jones. Here you’ll learn how all life on Planet Earth is united by the language of DNA, and debunk some common myths. Yes, says Jones, a chimp does share 98 per cent of our DNA; but that doesn’t make it 98 per cent human.
• Thus initiated, you’ll fully appreciate the thrilling story of Watson and Crick. James Watson was just 24 when, along with his partner Francis Crick, he established the double-helix structure of DNA. Watson’s The Double Helix (Phoenix, Dh53) is both a classic in 20th-century scientific literature and an insider’s account of the rivalries, jealousies and skulduggery that fuelled the race to decode life.
• From there, move to another popular classic in the form of The Selfish Gene (OUP, Dh53). In the book that brought him to public attention, Richard Dawkins delivers a gene’s-eye-view of life on Earth, arguing that we humans are only temporary vessels used by genes to ensure their immortality.
• Are our genes, then, our destiny? Or is it our life experiences that make us who we are? Matt Ridley grapples with that question in Nature via Nurture (Harper Perennial, Dh59).
. His conclusion? It’s the complex interaction between our genes and our experiences that really forms our nature, shapes our bodies and determines whether we are well or ill.