The Epigenetics Revolution
Every time you look in the mirror you see a mystery of biology. Each cell in your body carries exactly the same genetic code, and yet you don’t have teeth growing out of your eyeballs and you never get toenails coming out of your liver. How can one blueprint lead to so many different final structures?
DNA. Sometimes, when you read about biology, you could be forgiven for thinking that those three letters explain everything. But they don’t. We talk about DNA as if it’s a template, like a mould for a car part in a factory. In the factory, molten metal or plastic gets poured into the mould thousands of times and, unless something goes wrong in the process, out pop thousands of identical car parts.
But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example. In 1936 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.
That’s what happens when cells read the genetic code that’s in DNA. The same script can result in different productions.
When biologists see an example of this they call it epigenetics. It’s the fastest moving field in modern biology, yet very little has been written on this for a general readership. Now is the perfect time for such a book – not only do we know many examples of epigenetics in action, we’re finally starting to understand the mechanisms of how it works. We can pinpoint the tiny changes to DNA that control all the fine details of how our bodies behave.
And epigenetics doesn’t just govern the identity of the cells in out body. It’s all around us. This book will also explore and explain the following topics:
- How queen bees and ant queens control their colonies
- Why you can’t make a baby from two sperm or two eggs, but have to have one of each
- Why cloning is possible
- Why cloning is difficult
- Why tortoiseshell cats are always female
- Why some plants need a period of cold before they can flower
- Why humans contain trillions of cells in hundreds of complex organs, and microscopic worms contain about a thousand cells and virtually no organs, but we and the worm have the same number of genes
- Why a pair of identical twins can grow up in the same environment and one develops schizophrenia and one doesn’t, even though they are genetically identical
- Why childhood trauma may blight the rest of your life
- Why we become addicted to drugs of abuse and why it’s hard to break the habit
- Why we age and why we develop diseases, and how we’re creating new treatments
Nessa Carey has a PhD in virology from the University of Edinburgh and has had successful careers in both the university and commercial settings. She was a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College School of Medicine in London, where she led a research team investigating a genetic disorder that gets worse and worse as it passes down through the generations in an affected family. For nearly ten years she has worked in the biotech industry, trying to take basic science discoveries and turn them into new treatments for human diseases. Over the last four years she has been working with some of the...
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" A book that would have had Darwin swooning...Nessa Carey, science director for a leading epigenetics biotech company and a lecturer in genetics at Imperial College, writes brightly and humanely and is full of optimism for this exciting new dawn – both for the deep understanding of life and the potential for medical applications... Carey's book is the first to set out the epigenetics stall for the general reader, and anyone seriously interested in who we are and how we function should read this book. "
" Just over a decade since Matt Ridley's seminal Genome, Nessa Carey presents a hugely compelling explanation of the very latest from the frontline of modern biology... The Epigenetics Revolution traces the thrilling path this discipline has taken over the last twenty years."
" a lively and up-to-date tour of what's known about epigenetic mechanisms and their implications for ageing and cancer. "
"Nessa Carey, a molecular biologist, explains all clearly, while sucking in the uninitiated with intriguing tales of queen bees, tortoiseshell cats, un-identical identical twins and lots more."
"Her book combines an easy style with a textbook’s thoroughness... Carey’s book is full of illustrations and entertaining metaphors. She describes the nucleosome as DNA wrapped around “eight ping-pong balls … like a long liquorice whip around marshmallows”, and sees DNA as a film script, with plenty of room for interpretation and retakes. Carey’s experience of the biotechnology industry shows in her concluding remarks on the pros and cons of our growing understanding of epigenetics for drug discovery, and on understanding the impact of diet and environment on disease. "
"Without doubt this is a fascinating subject, and Carey provides plenty of examples of how epigenetics effects our development, our diseases and the way we inherit characteristics. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by many of the revelations. This is really significant stuff, that hasn't made its way into many of the popular science genetics titles. What's more Carey's style is highly approachable and readable... a truly eye-opening and exciting book on an important and under-reported topic. For some reason so many books on human biology concentrate on emotions and morality and other aspects on the edge of brain science - it was great to find a book that really took us back to basics, but in a new way."
"British virologist Carey tackles epigenetics with a passion to explain a rapidly developing and complex field.... An exhilarating exploration of an exciting new field, and a good gift for a bright biology student looking for a career choice. "
Wall Street Journal
"an enlightening introduction to what scientists have learned in the past decade."
"...intriguing reading for pharmacists interested in the emerging sciences concerning genetic health and disease."
Otago Daily Times
"Nessa Carey has a gift for the expression of complicated scientific concepts in clear and simple terms and brings to life the personalities responsible for key advances. She reveres the philosophies of science, in particular the principle of hypothesis and test, the crucial importance of a well-chosen experimental system, and the power of incisive thought. This something-for-everyone book cohesively spans the range between professional and popular readership."
International Journal of Epidemiology
" I would recommend The Epigenetics Revolution highly to anyone seeking an introduction to epigenetics. It is comprehensive in its coverage, generally well written and introduces basic information and concepts as they are required, rather than having a tedious ‘genetics 101’ chapter early on in the book, a feature of popular science books that often leads me to abandon them prematurely. It gives a sense of both the promise and the challenge of epigenetics in a way that is useful to people with a peripheral engagement with the field. It is up to date and the occasional errors (e.g. it is suggested that techniques for assessing DNA methylation mistake 5 hydroxymethylated for unmethylated DNA, whereas the misreading is to classify both 5-hydroxymethylcytosine and 5-methylcytosine as methylated 7) are at a level of technicality that means the primary literature would need to be read before any use could be made of the concepts. All in all, this is a book to buy and read. "
Times Literary Supplement
" A clear and very readable survey of current research in epigenetics...An excellent and largely accurate account of a fascinating and fast-moving area of modern biology."
New York Journal of Books
"As an introduction to this emerging field, The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey is a must-read for every intelligent person who likes to know what is going on in modern science. Dr. Carey does an excellent job of relating the history of the subject with all the key ideas clearly laid out and all the necessary background in genetics and cell biology carefully included. You don’t need to be a biologist or chemist to enjoy this book. Everything you need to follow the argument is succinctly provided, without distracting excursions into other fields. There are even genuinely helpful diagrams, many with cute mice in them, to illuminate some of the more complex ideas.... this book is well worth reading. The science of epigenetics is going to be huge in the 21st century, and The Epigenetics Revolution is a very supportive way to become acquainted with its fundamentals. Dr Carey writes well and clearly. The pace is easy and the overall story she tells is coherent and convincing. Not every single facet of the science is covered (no mention is made of the the modification of RNA—as opposed to DNA—by one of the key epigenetic mechanisms, for example), but epigenetics is already a large field and is growing fast. The Epigenetics Revolution isn’t meant as a textbook or a comprehensive survey. It is an introductory text for the layperson and as such, does its job brilliantly."
"Epigeneticist Nessa Carey brings the emergent and controversial field of epigenetics to a wide audience. Carey’s lively vision of how DNA works resembles a film script, with “plenty of room for interpretation and retakes."