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Understanding Genetics Made (a little) Easier - The Graphic Treatment
on December 27, 2008
It is no small task to explain how atoms form into chemicals, chromosomes, and the proteins which make up 'the stuff of life'. But Mark Shultz attempts to do that in just under 150 pages. Schultz uses a graphic novel format and copious illustrations to make this sometimes daunting topic accessible to the general reader. The book uses a visual learning style, mirroring each point with an illustrations as it drives through Shultz's text, which can sometimes be as dense in information as the coiled strands of DNA the book is attempting to explain.
The premise for the book is that an intelligent race of Squinch (similar to our sea cucumbers, but intelligent) are in peril as their species lacks genetic diversity. Coming to the rescue is Chief Scientist Bloort 183 who presents a galaxy-spanning report on the nature of Earth's DNA and genetics. Bloort must explain to his Supreme Highness how the reproductive strategy used by Earth's creatures brings about species diversity and why it is a winning strategy for life.
The text is written at a level suitable for high-school and college freshmen. My seventh-grader, who is studying genetics as a part of her curriculum said most of the book was over her head. I would recommend following up this book with a more in-depth exploration provided by MIT's OpenCoursware biology 700 series of video lectures, which are the lectures MIT provides its Freshmen.
The pace is very brisk and at times the terms and concept come fast and furious. Bloort does pause to make sure that the his Highness is able to recap one or two of the key points. The book does well when it uses the illustrations to explain some of the more difficult to grasp concepts, such as those related to molecular and cellar-level genetics. And it is at its best when it slows down long enough to explain a particularly difficult concept using more than a single example to illustrate the point. For the most part the illustrations worked well to reinforce the point being discussed, but the illustrations are also used as a counterpoint, providing some light-hearted relief.
In trying to explain genetic diversity the book starts with atoms, shows how they self-assemble into DNA and RNA and explains the processes RNA uses to copy DNA or assemble amino acids and proteins. The book does an excellent job of explaining the workings of chromosomes and inheritance, illustrating how the shuffling of genes leads to dominant and recessive traits, such as eye color. Genetic mutations are explored, part of nature's arsenal for genetic diversity. The book also touches on the genetic relatedness of all Earth's species and delves into the latest efforts of the Human Genome Project to read the entire DNA code for our own species.
The book makes several brief stops to touch on topics of social interest, such as the politicization of science by the Soviet Union, cloning as it was used by vintners, and genetic counseling.
The book is not without its blemishes, such as page 44 "DNA from a Human Perspective, Part 2," which appears twice, including once where p36 should be. Part 1 seems to be missing due to an editorial or printing error. Nevertheless, this page exists to redress the wrong done to Rosalind Franklin, a female scientist and co-discover of DNA's structure, who originally went uncredited for her work in helping to discover the double helix shape of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick received the lion's share of credit (and a Nobel Prize) for the discovery of the shape of DNA, but their work was most likely aided by access to Franklin's fine X-ray photographs of DNA's structure. Perhaps because of the male-dominated times, and partially because Franklin died of breast cancer before the Nobel prizes were awarded, she receives prominent mention in this section, returning her to a place in history posthumously.
Another minor nit occurs on page 128, which shows the split with proto-humans and chimps from a common ancestor, but would be more correct if it depicted the split as being between proto-humans and proto-chimps, since chimps, as well as humans, continued to evolve genetically during the past 5-million years.
This slender volume packs in a good deal of information, and is a fine way to gain a better understanding of the subject of life and how it works under the covers. The graphic novel format draws readers in and I found myself rooting for Bloort as he makes his case for understanding the science behind our genetic success.