Exploration of “how understanding neural systems is helping us unravel some of the biggest mysteries in science.”
One cannot fully comprehend the workings of an ant colony by studying a single ant, and a human is far more than a collection of cells and chemical reactions. This is old news to scientists, but new ways of thinking, combined with vast computing power, have given them a powerful tool, systems biology, to analyze these complex relationships. Enthusiastic and young—he is currently pursuing a doctorate in biology at Harvard—Valcourt delivers an expert overview of a spectacularly burgeoning field where, for example, a team of scientists spent 12 years and $3 billion sequencing the human genome in 2003. By 2016, a single scientist could do the same in a day for roughly $1,000. Philosophers and nonscientists routinely proclaim the superiority of the “big picture,” and Valcourt agrees without downplaying the difficulties. Isolated phenomena, he writes, “don’t fit together quite as easily as Lego blocks, but we are starting to realize that we can use them to construct biological systems that have the potential to produce medicines, sense environmental toxins, and improve manufacturing processes.” Mixing interviews, anecdotes, and lucid explanations, the author describes how dividing fertilized cells, at first identical, learn how to become a complete organism. He shares the universal amazement at how organs such as the brain develop seemingly magical (i.e., “emergent”) properties absent from their individual components, and he concludes that researchers and their supercomputers will transform lives, cure diseases, design drugs and perhaps living things from scratch, and efficiently correct a defective genome in an adult.
Readers will notice that, except for a few dramatic anecdotes, none of Valcourt’s marvels is currently happening, but he makes a convincing case that they are viable and just around the corner.