Davies skims over the how-to details but does discuss the future implications of “genomics” for medicine, anthropology,...

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CRACKING THE GENOME

INSIDE THE RACE TO UNLOCK HUMAN DNA

A reprise of the saga to map and sequence the human genome by the savvy founding editor of Nature Genetics.

Davies spotlights the role of J. Craig Venter, whose private firm Celera was both goad and thorn in the flesh to the federal Human Genome Project, headed by Francis Collins. HGP was a collaborative enterprise involving major labs in the US, UK, and other leading countries, with agreed-upon rules against patenting human genes and requiring the release of all sequence data to the public. Celera, billed as an information corporation, agreed to release data quarterly and seek patents on only a few hundred “novel gene systems.” The bone of contention between Venter and Collins lay in their radically different approaches to gene sequencing. The HGP program aimed to map the genome first, and only afterwards to clone and sequence it. Venter’s approach was “shotgun”—blast the whole DNA molecule into myriad fragments and use high-powered sequencing machines to read off the bases, then reassemble the bits and pieces using a sophisticated computer program. This approach, added to Venter’s earlier disputed techniques while still an NIH scientist, outraged the old guard and their disciples—but they were proved wrong when Venter completed the sequencing of the genome of a disease bacterium and a fruit fly. The author chronicles the rage and fear that colored the contenders in what clearly became a race, egged on by the media. In the end, it was the intervention of more than one behind-the-scenes senior scientist and public official that led to a “tie” in the race: a joint announcement this year at the White House that the feds and private enterprise had together forged a working draft of the human genome.

Davies skims over the how-to details but does discuss the future implications of “genomics” for medicine, anthropology, ethics, and evolution. His forte, however, lies in his admirable narration of how science and scientists work in the real world—and what a debt is owed to technology.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7432-0479-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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