The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance

The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance - Nessa Carey

DNA --> mRNA --> proteins --> you understand life! Well, it was never that simple but now it's not even an accurate description of all the functions of DNA. Genes exist in binary "off or on" states. Wrong! Many genes effectively have dimmer switches that allow a continuous spectrum of activation from fully off to some maximum rate of expression. 98% of our DNA is "junk." Wrong! Only 2% codes for proteins but various parts of the rest are now understood to serve several functions, from acting as the above mentioned dimmer switches, to coding for types of RNA that serve functions other than being an intermediary in protein production, including suppressing cancerous changes in cells. Things that happened to your parents or even grandparents can affect your phenotype, e.g. how prone you are to obesity.

In other words, however complicated you thought molecular biology was twenty years ago, when people were hubristically saying, "we almost understand 'the cell' completely," it turns out it's way more complicated than that. The revolution described here bares a resemblance to that that occurred in physics at the turn of the 20th Century, where comments regarding physics being essentially complete turned out to be spectacularly wrong. What is this revolution? It's the understanding that the structure of DNA cannot be functionally reduced to a list of base-pairs. The Watson-Crick double-helix model of DNA isn't the whole story. If it was, all your autosomes (non-sex chromosomes) would be metres long and never fit inside a microscopic cell. The fact that chromosomes fold up into tight, tiny balls that sit roughly in the middle of each cell was known before the fact that they are made of DNA was. It turns out that this folding up has profound consequences beyond just allowing the molecules to fit in a confined space. So does where methyl groups are present on base pairs and how many are present. The same goes for histones. Ditto acetyl groups. Read this book if you want to know what these consequences are in such diverse contexts as aging, mental health, cancer, obesity and anorexia.

If you don't know what any of the above mentioned molecules are, don't worry; this book gives good, comprehensible explanations that I could easily follow from hazy memories of school chemistry and there is a glossary, in case you forget something. It's an incredibly useful few pages and yet it's often neglected in pop sci books.

There are other things I can strongly recommend about this book. It is well referenced, so if you're inclined to look up the technical details and verify what Carey is saying, you can. Carey is mostly presenting work that is not controvercial today, even though it is radical by standards of the end of last century. When she does talk about matters that are still murky - when there is still no consensus today - she tells you. She also isn't on a giant self-promotion exercise for her own theories, as many pop sci writers are. All of this makes her trust-worthy in my eyes, in stark contrast to many pop sci authors.

If you are at all interested in molecular biology, this book is worth your time. It's contents fascinated me.