Long Genome, Lively Book


Five years ago, guitar player, raconteur, writer, genome geek and Duke professor Misha Angrist surrendered his DNA to the eyes of the public, and to his own restless, rambunctious curiosity. Over at the fine site LabLit, Richard Grant takes a smart, lively look at the smart, lively book that resulted:

The history of science and medicine is replete with self-experimentalists; those shining stars who, whether frustrated with lack of suitable models, peeved at the obstreperousness of officialdom, or simply out of sheer bloody-minded curiosity, inject themselves with heparin or swallow bacterial cultures in search of an Answer.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the era of ethics committees and independent review boards, the practice is no less prevalent today. Here is a Human Being (Harper Perennial, 2011) is Misha Angrist’s account of how he came to be the fourth subject of the Personal Genome Project, a Harvard-sponsored initiative to “improve our understanding of genetic and environmental contributions to human traits”. (The title, by the way, is from Walter Gilbert: “Three billion bases of DNA sequence can be put on a single compact disc and one will be able to pull a CD out of one’s pocket and say, ‘Here is a human being; it’s me!’”) Far from being the dry reporting of an experiment – introduction, method, results, conclusion – this is a highly personal, and often emotionally charged, account.

But then again, perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less. Quite apart from the questions of identity, ancestry, health, and race that all plague the author’s mind as he awaits the output from next-generation sequencing machines, the Personal Genome Project is more than a just a straightforward scientific study with Angrist (and his co-experimentees) as subjects. The Project’s Chairman and engine room personified, Harvard geneticist George Church, wants to study hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of individual genomes. Church believes that only by studying such huge numbers of people can we even begin to detect the subtle yet meaningful DNA variants that have an effect on familiar but frustratingly complex complex traits such as heart disease and diabetes.

More at LabLit. I read both the entire review and the book with great pleasure. This contemplation of one’s genome with become more common in the years ahead. Angrist shows how to take that a lot deeper than contemplation of one’s navel. (Though that can get interesting too.)

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