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I Wish I Were DNA Helicase So I Could Unzip Your Genes - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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December 18th, 2008


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07:07 pm - I Wish I Were DNA Helicase So I Could Unzip Your Genes
At the genetics session at Asilomar, the instructor highly recommended Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley. She even read an excerpt from the introduction. So I put it on my Amazon Wishlist, since I suck at genetics. Sure enough, Melanie, who reads science books for fun way more than I do, bought it for me for my birthday.

And you know what, guys? GENES ARE AWESOME OMG.

The book takes us on a tour of our own genetic code, using the 23 pairs of chromosomes as convenient jumping-off points for 23 topics ranging from the nature of intelligence to sexual antagonism. Now, the reason I suck at genetics is because I get lost in all the nitty gritty molecular biology of it all, but, thankfully, Ridley keeps it very high-level and constantly uses metaphors to help the reader understand. For instance, the central metaphor of the book is that the genome itself is a book that contains within it the story of how it came to be in the form of genes. This theme occupies the first couple chapters but remains prevalent throughout the book, and it is absolutely fascinating. I mean, how fucked up is it that our genome differs from the chimpanzee genome by TWO PERCENT? How fucked up is it that there are certain genes that are EXACTLY THE SAME across species? So much so that you can replace a certain fruit fly gene with a human gene and NOTHING HAPPENS. You can use the genome to trace back through history, identifying when species splits occurred based on how similar their genomes are. Hell, we can make fairly educated guesses about what we were like millions of years ago just by asking the question, "Why is this gene even here?"

That's all fabulous and dazzling, but there's a more troubling revelation that comes from examining our genetic code: the "selfish gene" idea. You guys, I had heard about this idea and possibly read a little about it in textbooks, but I did not realize how RIDICULOUSLY SCARY AWESOME it was until Matt Ridley laid it all out for me. Because genes are fucking bastards! They are totally only looking out for themselves! All they want to do is make it to the next generation, and if you suffer some collateral damage along the way, whatever. Perhaps the most awesome example given is that the battle of sexes is REAL, DOWN TO THE MOLECULAR LEVEL. Holy shit, the X and Y chromosome have been fighting it out for EONS. There is all this crazy shit about what's actually in semen (THIS BOOK CONTAINS KILLER SPERM) and who controls placental development (BABIES ARE SERIOUSLY PARASITES HOLY CRAP) and how all this has managed to go on when only one gender even gets a Y chromosome.

Plus, like Simon Singh in The Big Bang Theory, Ridley does a great job making scientific research and discovery sound exciting. He highlights unsung heroes in genetics that I feel really sorry for because they were FUCKING RIGHT all those centuries ago and their contemporaries just LAUGHED AT THEM. He also gives the quite-sung heroes the respect they deserve (HOLY SHIT MENDEL WAS AMAZING). He provides a variety of hypotheses and discusses them without bias, although he sometimes gives the reader his own opinion just for kicks (it's his book, after all). It really makes you appreciate how discoveries are made, how you often have to challenge basic assumptions to find the answer. I mean, nobody thought DNA was anything worth looking into; nobody believed four base pairs were all you needed to encode an organism. Can you imagine that? It seems so stupid in retrospect! You want to go back in time and shake people. And then there's the fact that a great deal of the important discoveries talked about in the book happened in my lifetime. That is nuts. I was alive, and the world was changing all around me. The world I was born into had a completely different understanding of genetics than the world I live in now (and this book was written at the turn of the century, so it must be even crazier now).

Ridley's style is very much geared toward the layperson with no science background. You don't need to know the chemical structure of adenosine or what an Okazaki fragment is; he never gets that technical. And he tries as much as possible to use metaphors rather than jargon: in fact, he sometimes deliberately stops himself before he begins to bore the reader. And he tells the reader he's doing this, it's funny. He engages the reader constantly throughout the book, addressing him directly, so it really is as if Matt Ridley is standing right in front of you and telling you this awesome stuff he knows about genes.

When I decided to write this post, I was going to use a whole lot more specific examples from the book, but, you know what, I don't want to spoil it for you. There is just too much awesome. Reading this book made me rethink my entire existence. And the world. And society. And evolution. It's just psychotic how much of everything can be explained by our genes, how they really do tell a story. Ridley is forced to use the word "mindboggling" multiple times because, seriously, this shit just boggles the mind. But you should know what's going on inside of you! And what it all means. It is your right as a human being! Reading this book made me want to read more science books because HELLO SCIENCE IS AWESOME YOU GUYS. IT CAN EXPLAIN WHY IT RAINS AND EVERYTHING.

In conclusion, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
Current Mood: sleepysleepy
Current Music: Annuals - Sore

(42 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 03:16 am (UTC)
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I guess you should! I guarantee you will love it or your recommendation back.
From:sainfoin_fields
Date:December 19th, 2008 03:19 am (UTC)
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This sounds like a good book! I LOVE SCIENCE SO MUCH, COW. It blows my mind, which is why I am not a scientist.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:09 am (UTC)
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I am a scientist (sorta), and it still blows my mind. The world is so full of wonder!
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From:electricmonk
Date:December 19th, 2008 03:33 am (UTC)
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Coooooooool. Genetics was my favorite part of bio last term. Apparently much of our "junk DNA" is probably creepy viral DNA that has inserted itself into our genes and lets us do all the replicating work for it and we pass it onto our kids forever until one day it activates and we all turn into robots and viruses take over the world.

That's all true, except maybe for the last part.

I totally know what Okazaki fragments are. It totally didn't get me a date.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:11 am (UTC)
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Apparently much of our "junk DNA" is probably creepy viral DNA that has inserted itself into our genes and lets us do all the replicating work for it and we pass it onto our kids forever until one day it activates and we all turn into robots and viruses take over the world.
He talks about that! Except for the last part.

I totally know what Okazaki fragments are. It totally didn't get me a date.
I dig chicks who know what Okazaki fragments are. Also, "anaerobic."
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From:dharmavati
Date:December 19th, 2008 03:41 am (UTC)
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I have that book! We had to read it and present on one specific chapter back in my high school AP biology class (I had the chapter on the X and Y chromosome XD). Although my teacher scanned our chapters for us so we only had to read our assigned chapter, I ended up buying and reading the entire book. ;) It's really interesting and I like how he doesn't stick to the genes themselves but goes on at length about the implications of all this knowledge (I find the "Fate" and "Eugenics" chapters particularly evocative).

In conclusion: YES, I TOTALLY AGREE. :D
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:13 am (UTC)
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The "Fate" chapter is pretty awesome, but I was very sleepy when I read "Eugenics" and thought it strayed a little too far from the genes themselves and focuses mostly on all sorts of SCARY POLICIES I HAD NO IDEA EVEN EXISTED. They've seriously sterilized the mentally ill, like, forever? Hundreds of thousands of them?? That's so creepy.
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From:thatonekimgirl
Date:December 19th, 2008 03:43 am (UTC)
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Oooh, I order a few science books for my dad for Christmas - this one looks like another one I could get him that he'd like. Thanks for the rec!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:14 am (UTC)
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What else did you get him?
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From:super_hoodzie_x
Date:December 19th, 2008 03:59 am (UTC)
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The title of your post is one of my favourite pick-up lines EVER.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:15 am (UTC)
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I'm a member of the Facebook group!
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From:idreamofpeace
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:09 am (UTC)
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Oh, that sounds interesting! Genetics has always been one of my favorite parts of science.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:16 am (UTC)
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It's always confounded me with the details, but it's still incredibly fascinating. Just the fact that DNA gets copied hundreds of thousands of millions of times BY HAND (basically), and we don't all drop dead in five minutes.
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From:outforawalk
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:51 am (UTC)
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Oh! I suck at doing the science, but I like science for lay persons. Maybe I'll give this one a shot. (Oh, ha! Just as typed that, Bones was shot on TV.)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 05:31 am (UTC)
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Huzzah!!
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From:sterope
Date:December 19th, 2008 05:54 am (UTC)
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I honestly just skimmed this, but I saw the word Mendel, and I was reminded of how I used to find Gregor Mendel amusing in high school. Plus, recently, I was trying to explain punnett squares to a co-worker and he didn't know what I was talking about. It made me sad, because those were my favorite in biology class.
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From:mycenae
Date:December 19th, 2008 05:55 am (UTC)
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WANT TO READ. I seriously regret not taking real science classes in college, and I really should learn this stuff...
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 19th, 2008 06:04 am (UTC)
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Read it! Right now! Learn! You will feel so much smarter and more knowledgeable and then, at cocktail parties, you can bust out with, "Man, can you believe that lactose intolerance is the DOMINANT TRAIT and we evolved ourselves the ability to drink milk as adults??"
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From:pseudo_tsuga
Date:December 19th, 2008 06:23 am (UTC)
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Ha. I actually know what the last line means because of the Dinosaurs class I took last spring.

I love books like this, that shows you once again how fucking amazing science really is. Another one for the Christmas list!
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From:squaringkarma
Date:December 19th, 2008 06:55 am (UTC)
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I love this book so much.
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From:adelynne
Date:December 19th, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)
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Mendel was freakishly lucky. That he picked 7 different traits on 7 different chromosomes to follow and that they were all pretty much in a dominant/recessive relationship. Morgan had a much tougher time with it some 50 years later uncovering hypomorphs and hypermorphs.

From an evolutionary (and a molecular biology) perspective, it's not that freakish that some genes are exactly the same (which most are not, you can change a lot on the gene level without affecting protein composition and action) - it's Darwinian. Any mutation away from the desirable "peak" will result in an individual who is not as "fit" as the one who has the desirable trait. The less "fit" individual is less likely to pass down his genes to the next generation, and thus this mutation is not propagated.

I read that book for freshman seminar lo these 8.5 years ago. Sadly, that means it's probably dated in places, especially as it was published prior to the completion of the HGP. I do recall liking it so much I gave it to my dad to read and haven't seen it since.
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From:toughcookie42
Date:December 19th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)
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I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Now you see why I love genetics so much, and the selfish gene concept explains a lot, including the origin of life! Once upon a time there were a bunch of molecules in the primordial soup, and they didn't do anything. Then one day an RNA-ish molecule came along, and by chemical coincidence, it made another one of itself out of the soup! And then both those molecules made another one, and so on, and then this one time, one of the molecules made a chemical mistake that made the new molecule even faster, stronger, better at replicating itself! And after a little time, these molecules learned how to make cars and computers and write LJ posts because it makes them happy. The end.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 20th, 2008 03:25 am (UTC)
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That seems so much less magical. Damn you, RNA, ruining the mysteries of the universe.

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