Book Review: The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey

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Second last science read of 2016!

I definitely learned a lot more about DNA, gene expression and proteins (not the type you add to your salad) in The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey. In this book, Carey takes fascinating questions such as why identical twins aren’t actually identical, why tortoiseshell cats are always female, why we age, how it is decided which genetically identical larva grow up to become queen bees while others become sterile worker bees, why mammals require both a male and a female parent to procreate, and why, despite each cell in our bodies carrying the exact same DNA, we don’t have teeth growing in our eyeballs or kidneys growing out of our heads. The answer to all of the above – epigenetics.

At a basic level, epigenetics takes a look at how cells read the genes in our DNA and how some genes are switched on and others switched off based on external factors such as the environment, evolutionary factors and other circumstances, such as the effect the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944/’45 had on the health and weight of the surviving population. Basically, as Carey puts it, “there is something in cells that can keep specific genes turned on or switched off.” However, the information that is in the gene never goes away, it’s still there and if we can figure out how to activate or deactivate these genes at will, the revelation could lead to a whole new frontier in biology and the medical industry. The so-called “junk DNA” in our bodies? Well, turns out they’re not just junk, but play a key role in determining our health and physique, whether we’re fat, thin, short, tall, live long or short lives, are more susceptible to certain diseases than others, and so much more.

 

As you can guess, epigenetics research also plays a large part in cloning research, something Carey looks at fairly early on in her book. In fact, for people who never really understood how cloning works or how Dolly the sheep was cloned or who have nightmares about body clone horror movies, this is the book for you (and it will also clear up more than a few scifi-based fears of cloning!).

Then there’s longevity. Epigenetics, Carey tells us, can also change the way we age. The research into this is fascinating, though unfortunately it doesn’t look as if we’re any closer yet to developing an anti-ageing pill. However, there are fascinating insights into how we might be able to treat diseases such as cancer in the future using gene therapy. And it’s not just diseases too – pharmaceutical researchers are also looking at creating drugs that suppresses or activates certain proteins that control sugar and fat metabolism.

Epigenetics is a fairly new field of research but one which will no doubt play a great role in the future of modern biology. There is a long way to go and scientists can’t be sure either that if we are able to turn on or off certain genes at will, just what the long or short term effects are on other areas of our our bodies. If we “edit the script”, as Carey puts it, there’s no telling what resultant changes can snowball from there. Still, there are many rewards to be reaped from going forward, including the tantalising idea of being able to cure anything from cancer to autism to dementia just by being able to express or suppress a few genes at will (or at least via gene therapy drugs.)

Though I’ve always found biology fascinating, I’ve always had a hard time getting a good grasp of it, particularly in school, so I was a little worried about how well I was going to be able to follow this book. However, I needn’t worry – Carey explains everything in easy, clear, concise information and her use of metaphors was a great help in understanding everything. If you want a greater understanding of modern biology and how our DNA works, I highly recommend this book.

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