- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 17, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0192862081
- ISBN-13: 978-0192862082
- Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 0.9 x 5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,500,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Art of Genes: How Organisms Make Themselves
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"It is arguable that the most important advance in biology in the past twenty years has been the revolution in our understanding of the mechanisms of development.... Developmental biology has been transformed from a field in which ingenious manipulative experiments generated speculations about unobservable underlying causes, such as gradients and prepatterns, to one in which we have a very detailed knowledge of what is actually going on at the molecular and cellular level. Enrico Coen has written a book that attempts, with considerable success, to convey the essence of this revolution to the lay reader. It will also be of great interest to those biologists...who have only a superficial knowledge of the subject."TREE
About the Author
Enrico Coen is Professor in the Genetics Department at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.
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rather than clarify the subject. In any case, after reading this book I feel better equiped to prepared to face a more technical book, like Sean Caroll's "DNA and diversity".
Coen does a good job in taking us on a tour of the issues that will be in play here. Biologists have been struggling for a long time with development, but it is only with the sophistication of modern chemical analysis and the viewpoint of DNA, RNA, and protein machines that the marvelous self-direction of the mechanism is starting to become evident. Amazingly, the flows of proteins from cell to cell via interdicting membranes, the interactions between proteins in one cell and those in another, the ability of a protein to change another, and -- singly or in combination -- to turn on or off specific genes (that do themselves make proteins that may furher elaborate this process) are sufficiently rich methods to build a body. Clearly such an assertion requires much detailed explication, and the author does provide this. But here I think he goes wrong by introducing an analogy to explain development.
The author chooses to bring in the idea of an artist painting a picture as a help to understanding the way an organism builds itself from a single cell. There is, in fact, very little about the way an artist makes a picture that resembles development, except perhaps the notion of progressive refinement. However, none daunted, he introduces "colors" to describe the presence of one or another Master Proteins, and "scents" to describe the effect of certain membrane proteins on the Master Proteins in contacting cells. These colors and scents dominate the discussion thereafter, but must, naturally, be briefly dispensed with here and there as he describes the actual mechanisms in terms of molecules, but then up they pop again.
There is nothing gained by this artificial isomorphism of color for molecule and scent for effect. An analogy, to be of some use, must give the mind a familiar structure as a map to an unfamiliar one. The spread of "colors" and "scents" along the segments of a developing fruit fly or diffusing dorsally/ventrally in a flower bud does not add anything. It actually requires an extra step to translate these colors back into the molecular populations they really are. This picture of molecules diffusing through a body is the conceptually simpler, as well as being, more or less, the actual.
As the book went on I found the discussions of symmetry and handedness to be protracted, and the conclusions drawn interesting but rather muffled by that leisureliness. Explanations of shape and proportion and of how particular patterns arise during growth were too vague, and lost in the talk of painters and painting. Certainly there is much interesting material in this book, but to a very great extent it can stand on its own. Let the occasional painting metaphor season the narrative rather than provide the main ingredient.
(OBSOLESCENCE CAVEAT: apparently the role of RNA in genetic regulation is just now starting to be appreciated. At the time Coen wrote, none of that was even suspected.)