An exhilarating exploration of an exciting new field, and a good gift for a bright biology student looking for a career...

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THE EPIGENETICS REVOLUTION

HOW MODERN BIOLOGY IS REWRITING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF GENETICS, DISEASE, AND INHERITANCE

British virologist Carey tackles epigenetics with a passion to explain a rapidly developing and complex field.

Early on the author reminds us that a surprising finding from human-genome research is that only two percent of the DNA in our cells codes for proteins used in the body. Though it was once fashionable to call the rest “junk” DNA, that’s not the case today. Some of this DNA is transcribed as “non-coding RNA” with various functions, and some codes for proteins that determine which genes are expressed and which genes are silent in a given cell type—a liver or a skin cell, for example—ensuring that when these cells divide, the daughter cells will be the same type. Epigenetics is the study of those DNA controls, the key players for which are proteins that attach methyl groups to selected parts of DNA and proteins that add acetyl groups to histones (proteins associated with DNA on chromosomes). None of these controls is evident when sperm meets egg and undergoes initial cell divisions, which explains why “embryonic stem cells” are prized for their ability to develop into any cell type. As Carey surveys the field, she dwells on early development as a critical period when environmental influences can affect epigenetic controls with long-term effects. Thus women pregnant in the first trimester in the infamous Dutch famine in World War II gave birth to offspring at increased risk for obesity as adults. Similarly, Carey explores epigenetic changes due to childhood abuse as contributing to stress-related illnesses in maturity. Epigenetic effects may also play a role in schizophrenia and chronic diseases, including cancer, and have already inspired new drugs to inhibit epigenetic controls. There is also fascinating research to explain, for example, why feeding honey-bee larvae royal jelly will turn them into queens and not sterile workers. Carey makes clear that debate and controversy attend this rapidly growing field, and she takes pains to explore alternate (non-epigenetic) explanations for various findings.

An exhilarating exploration of an exciting new field, and a good gift for a bright biology student looking for a career choice.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-231-16116-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2012

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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