The information revolution in silicon gets the headlines, but a revolution in genetics has been running in parallel and will soon affect our lives even more profoundly. Plenty of authors are paying attention, but British physician and researcher Ryan (Metamorphosis: Unmasking the Mystery of How Life Transforms, 2011, etc.) delivers an up-to-date history that will be definitive—at least for a few years.
After a passing glance at Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, Ryan explores the work of one of the greatest scientists to never have won a Nobel Prize: Oswald Avery, who led the team that discovered, in the 1940s, that DNA carries genetic information. Until that point, everyone assumed that genes were proteins—extremely complex molecules. However, despite an impressive size, DNA has a simple, repetitious structure. In an act of dazzling creativity (others did the actual research), James Watson and Francis Crick determined the makeup of DNA in 1952. Researchers soon deciphered its code, and the race was on to learn how genes make a living thing. Matters have become complicated in recent years, but we’re getting close. Ryan quotes liberally from The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), Horace Freeland Judson’s masterpiece on the early decades of DNA research. Like Judson, Ryan conducts thoughtful interviews, describes experiments in precise detail, and takes care to include the inevitable politics, personalities, frustrations, and controversies. He manages to make sense of a relentless stream of discoveries that have already revolutionized our picture of human evolution and which will allow us—not quite yet but any year now—to create life in the lab and cure disease. “In April 2015 the human embryo was deliberately engineered in a scientific experiment for the first time,” writes the author. “I believe that this is as great a leap as the discovery of gravity by Newton [and] relativity by Einstein.”
An enlightening account of past and present knowledge and the future possibilities of human heredity.