After Reading ‘The Gene - An Intimate History'

I heard about this book from Bill Gates’s reading list. At the same time, I also came to know about the author’s other famous book, The Emperor of Maladies. Back then, I did not know anything about Siddartha Mukherjee. Last year, when I was reading Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s “স্বজন সকাশে”, I learned about Shiddartha Mukherjee. That fueled my interest and I read The Emperor of All Maladies and was truly fascinated by it. So, The Gene climbed high up on my To-Read list.

The one thing life does after it comes to existence, is procreation. It does not matter what form or shape it exists, its goal is to create another one similar to itself before it expires. When life comes into existence, there is a timebomb that starts ticking and the one important job life has is to create another life before the bomb explodes. From that first origin of life (if it was a single chance event), life has continued to create more lives, sometimes these copies are so different from one another, it is hard to believe that all of them started from a single life. The first part of the book deals with the question of why all existing life forms are different. What we know now is that ancient Greek philosophers asked that question and came up with their explanation which definitely falls short under the scrutiny of modern scientific rigor. Mendel was probably the first person to rigorously study how hereditary information flows from parent to child. The other part of the puzzle, how all look different if everything started from one, was explored by Darwin. If these two scientists were the example of rigor, the path to modern genetics was littered with countless pseudoscientists who used genetics to promote their hidden agendas. I knew about the Nazis, but I was surprised to know about the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded. Just only about a hundred years ago, there were people in the United States, who thought they could curtail other people’s freedom to create children to protect the nation’s genetic superiority.

Genes came as an abstract idea to explain how hereditary information flows but that was not sufficient. People were interested to understand what they would look like in a physical world. It took a lot of incremental progress to finally figure out what they are made of. The second part of the book tells this story. What I enjoyed most is that these discoveries do not just fall out of sky, it takes a lot of small discoveries and collaboration to paint the big picture. We now know a lot of the genes, what they are made of, how they work, but there are still so many unanswered questions about their existence.

When I was growing up, I kept hearing that pretty soon, there will be genetic tests available that will be able to predict what your life will be like, will you end up as a thief or a scholar, etc. Funny thing is that similar dubious claims are still popping up every now and then. As we are gaining more understanding about how genes work, we genes and external inputs come together to determine the faith of a cell, organism and living things. Only if there was a rosetta stone to translate the genetic code into tarot reading! As geneticists around the world made progress on sequencing and cloning of genes, they got busy trying to understand how these genes (now that they can be identified) plays a role in determining phenotypes. This is where I learned something new. Even though social norms might dictate a certain phenotype as acceptable, that does not mean that that phenotype is the superior one. In fact in a different environment a completely opposite phenotype might increase the chance of survival. Hyperactive attention might bring a lot of trouble in modern classroom but in the jungle when hunting, this would be something you would desire Initially there was a hype that we will discover all the genes and figure out how to cure diseases and how everything works but it did not take very long to dampen that enthusiasm and do a reality check.

That reality check did not put a stop to everything rather the opposite happened. We gathered more force to decode the genetic code of life. Like every other branch of science, the lure of profit brought private investment to genetics research. The tug of war between public and private funded research sometimes slowed things down but overall it was a good thing. In 2000, we finally copied the book of man from our DNA to paper.

Now that we have the book, we should have all the answers. But that did not happen. Turns out, genes are not everything. Life, or the saga of life has more tricks under its sleeve that we thought of. The scientists were too clever to call it epigenetics i.e. beyond genetics.

There are many interests in developing further understanding of how everything works. Some people are here for just intellectual curiosity, some are here for making a profit, some are here to bend science to get some support for their ideology. Time and time, various forms of eugenics movement started based on fragmented scientific claims. And I am sure, there will be many more coming. How these movements will be tackled using scientific facts, is a question worth thinking about.

Few interesting things that I learned:

The first time I heard the word Gene, the word sounded very similar to Genie in Bengali and often I would mix them up when listening to someone and get confused. Eventually, my highschool biology classes taught me what it was. There was also a time in graduate school, when I thought of studying computational biology, a dream that I have not given up yet. As I was half way through the book, it felt like all that are to be discovered, are discovered. There is nothing new to find. But as I was towards the end, it seemed there were tons of unanswered questions. We came a long way for sure, but the destination is still far far away. This kept me excited that someday I might have the chance to work on still unanswered questions.

Published at: 08/23/2020