The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance Reprint Edition
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Nessa Carey takes us on a lively and up-to-date tour of what's known about epigenetic mechanisms and their implications for ageing and cancer. -- Laurence Hurst, University of Bath, Focus Magazine
[Nessa Carey's] book combines an easy style with a textbook's thoroughness.... A bold attempt to bring epigenetics to a wide audience. -- Jonathan Weitzman, Nature
Carey's report on the rapidly developing state of epigenetics research may help nonscientists with public-policy, investment, and health-care decisions., Booklist
An exhilarating exploration of an exciting new field, and a good gift for a bright biologystudent looking for a career choice., Kirkus Reviews
An enlightening introduction to what scientists have learned in the past decade about [epigenetics]. -- Carl Zimmer, The Wall Street Journal
This book provides an excellent introduction to a fascinating new field that may revolutionize our understanding of human health and disease. Highly recommended., Library Journal
A must-read for every intelligent person who likes to know what is going on in modern science. -- Graham Storrs, New York Journal of Books
[Carey] provides an excellent and largely accurate account of a fascinating and fast-moving area of modern biology. -- Jonathan Hodgkin, Times Literary Supplement
Written in an engaging manner using everyday metaphors to clarify complex concepts and utilizing well–defined diagrams, the author has produced an outstanding book with her wit and expertise. -- Rita Hoots, NSTA Recommends (National Science Teachers Association)
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The criticism of its intended audience being unclear is fair. At times, it seems to be aimed at a rather lay audience with slightly odd analogies that over simplify almost to a fault. A few pages later, jargon and technicalities are tossed around that definitely require a solid background in biology to follow with any ease. This has the discordant effect of making the simplistic analogies seem even more odd. It can’t seem to decide if it expects you to remember only basic high school biology or if it prefers you’ve had at least a couple of undergraduate level courses in molecular biology and genetics.
That being said, it was incredibly helpful in updating my understanding of this field. As a biology major in the ‘90s, this field was so nascent that it was barely addressed, let alone studied thoroughly. As a teacher of AP Bio in high school today, I needed an update on vertebrate gene regulation in order to be able to competently address the topic in my classroom. This book provided exactly that. While I won’t be teaching most of the advanced details in this book, I will be adjusting a few critical things to ensure alignment with today’s knowledge.
Even better, it reminded me why I have always found genetics so fascinating. It’s even more so now than it was 25 years ago. As so often happens in emerging fields, each intriguing answer leads to dozens more questions. If you think the way a basic prokaryotic operon works is pretty cool, learning about mammalian epigenetic gene regulation will make your brain geek out with intellectual joy.
I learned a lot from this book and want to learn more about this topic. I did find it difficult to stay engaged, partly because of Carey’s abundant use of adverbs, and partly because I’m not well versed in biology. Maybe if I had a better basic understanding before going in – it’s been a long time since I took a college biology course – it would’ve been more engaging for me. Overall a great introduction to the field.
I felt there was too great an emphasis on epigenetic causes of human diseases, about which fairly little is known (except for a few rare but well-explored cases). Therefore, I only skimmed the last few chapters.
I read this book and also took a Coursera online course in epigenetics, but I still have no clear idea about the relationship between genetics and epigenetics as applied to inheritance patterns. I cannot imagine how to add epigenetic dynamics to the biological models I work with, or if they make any difference at all to population biology.
Lacking is discourse on possible misuses of epigenetic insights and perhaps some speculations on the uses of epigenetics for steering the future of human evolution. But these are not really essential in this book, though I would love to know the views of the author.
Disturbing is a rather narrow epistemology of science. It is not true that science must avoid domains “where it is impossible to develop the testable hypotheses that are the cornerstone of all scientific enquiry” (p.235) , Leaving aside the social sciences, large parts of astronomy, evolutionary psychology and also the science of evolution are far from fully satisfying this requirement. Abduction, as proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce in his work on the logic of science and expanded later, is ignored. The proposed mechanistic models ignore quantum mechanics. And, to conclude this list of disturbing statements, I wonder how the author would elaborate her statement “A phenomenon can have a mechanistic basis, without being deterministic” (p. 235) at a workshop on free will attended by philosophers of the mind and brain scientists.
The main part of the book on epigenetics deserves five stars and is strongly recommended. I choose to ignore superfluous statements irrelevant for the core contents and suggest that readers do so too.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
Read it as an informal textbook to an academic class in Epigenetics. Probably got 33% of all the learning from the book and 67% from the class, and I have a suspicion the the basic lessons of the book will stick more than the forest of class details about what protein acetylates what unit of the histone.
Would possibly be nice to expose a little more of the molecular detail, without frightening horses and small children.
Top international reviews
Again, later in the book, it is suggested that the permanence of methylation makes it the ideal candidate as the cause of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Only after this idea has been developed in detail is it stated that memory may also be epigenetically determined. Memory, of course, is a far bigger subject than PTSD, and a very complicated one in which the growth of both new connections and new synapses (and possibly glial cells) has long been recognised as a perfectly good explanation of how neurons build and strengthen association. These processes may indeed be under control of epigenetics, but epigenetics isn't necessary for an explanation - again transcription factor cascades, or just the fact that synapses remain once they have been induced to form by neural firing are sufficient. PTSD undoubtedly arises out of memory; and especially emotional memory which appears to get separated from other memories, but memory is a much more complex process than can just be put down to epigenetics. I'm not saying that epigenetics isn't important - I think it's hugely important; just that Carey tends to jump to conclusions in a less than thorough way.
There is much mention of 'mental illness' in the book, again with methylation implicated especially in the 'diseases' of PTSD and 'depression'. While the author does a great, and much needed job of explaining how paradigm shifts can take a long time in science because of inertia in the system which resists the overthrow of established ideas, she is clearly unaware of the paradigm shift that has long been underway in the field of so called 'mental illness', especially in the UK, where DSM (the Diagnostic Statistical Manual) has long been viewed with disdain by many psychiatrists, clinical psychogist, and therapists. I suspect that the author's involvement in the pharmaceuticals field has blinded her to this. Many experts, such as Professor Richard Bental ('Doctoring the Minds' and 'Madness Explained') regard depression and even schizophrenia as understandable consequences of pressure from society and family (see also R D Laing's 'Politics of the Family' etc and Bateson's double bind hypothesis). Carey's search for a simple 'cause', though valid to some degree, is much too crude, and ignores so many complex factors. Her quoting of identical twin studies (too often glibly trotted out in general) needs to be questioned. Even twins who grow up together don't share the same experiences - one might have been traumatised, chastised, or otherwise changed in a fleeting moment while the other was absent - this is what creates differing personalities, and it does so through memory, the functioning of the mind, and even psychosomatic effects. All of these are down to neural networks, and we don't understand the functioning of neural networks yet, even at a quite basic level. It's jumping to conclusions to think that epigenetics is suddenly the key to 'mental illness'. An interesting fact about PTSD which caught my attention years ago, is that the commonly prescribed beta-blocker, propranolol, has been found to prevent PTSD if given to soldiers prior to battle. It is also said to 'kill conscience', and there is considerable evidence from research that emotional memories are erased and then put back when we remember events, and that re-living traumatic events while taking propranolol can block that 'putting back'. This poses serious questions for the role of methylation - how is the methylation in neurons involved in emotional memories undone every time we remember something; and if memories are constantly erased and put back, even those causing PTSD, doesn't that rather conflict with the argument that the permanence of methylation is the key? And does propranolol in fact affect methylation or some process around it (a topic for research)?
As I said, I'm not the average reader, having been passionately involved in these subjects for thirty or more years, and I know just how mind-bogglingly complicated they are becoming. All the more credit to Nessa Carey for tackling them in a book now, because studying papers is exhausting and takes time, even when you have access to them, and we need books that try to summarise, and access to other's ideas, if what E O Wilson calls 'consilience' across science disciplines is to be achieved. A great book, and I look forward to reading the next one on 'Junk' DNA when it comes out.
In sixteen chapters the ground was laid that there’s more to it than just DNA and from there it’s a fast and compelling story building up the case for epigenetics, via some basics on cell development pathways, the gene and ageing.
It gets pretty heavy in the last third making reference to lots of proteins, histones, methylation that are likely easy picking for the biologists, but take concentration from me though I don’t think I lost the thread.
By the end I was energised by the possibilities for health, ageing and just making life better; though the author was careful to say at the end that there a lot they still don’t know and it will take time, maybe a lot of time if trans-generational studies are needed.
Essential reading for those interested!
And yet – Identical (Zygotic) Twins, over their life-cycle, can turn out different in many ways. Why?
Our cell life is a lot more complex than just the template of our D.N.A; there are other factors playing on the top of this genetic code, switching certain options “off” and “on”. Welcome to the world Epigenetics.
As someone who had heard of this term being banded around in science articles and TV shows, I wanted to learn a little bit more – after all, when I did Biology at School (in the mid 1990’s) this stuff certainly wasn’t mentioned on the public radar.
Nessa Carey has written an excellent book helping “numpties” like myself grasp hold of this new and exiting field in biology. It’s not a book that is shy of using biological terminology, and it involved me grappling with imagery that I had never even imagined before; but that’s the exciting thing about science! As well as providing you with the knowledge of why your male tortoiseshell cat will be infertile, this book will give you a greater appreciation of the complexity of life at a cellular level.
Also consider this: A caterpillar that becomes a butterfly has exactly the same DNA - so why do they look so different?
The answer is 'epigenetics'. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, this is called epigenetics. This also includes an individual at different point in their life. For example why does horrendous abuse as a child often lead to problems later in life - is it psychological or is it embedded in the very genes of the person?
In the following sentence, before I read this book, I mostly understood the word 'within'.
"Histone Acetylation and DNA methylation within a CpG motif in the promoter region mediates gene expression ...."
By half way through this book I understood what this meant.
The author never hides the gritty details from the reader unlike many patronising popular science books that shy away from the scientific detail in case the reader finds it too difficult. She takes you step by step through the main details of epigenetics and the technical language used. It is not difficult, but you do have to take it slowly to digest the information.
To make the subject a bit lighter, the book is dotted with dry humour and pithy literary quotes.
Epigenetics is such a new field that many of the key players are still alive and working away in their laboratories and earning Nobel prizes along the way. She introduces you to some of the leading scientists and the contributions they are making. For example Professor Sir John Gurdon worked for ten years to explain why most cells remain forever of the same type through permanent gene inactivation, it explains why liver cells never become brain cells. Professor Yamanaka is one of the youngest luminaries in the stem cell and pluripotency field. He and his team has managed to convert adult cells back into pluripotent stem cells, thus offsetting the sensitive issue of using embryonic stem cells.
The latter half of the book covers the application of epigenetics. It starts with cancer and all its complexities and why we are unlikely to hear "Boffin finds cure for cancer" as there are many, many routes to cancer.
Then she moves on to mental illness such as schizophrenia and the role this new science may play along with the possible link between memory and genetics.
In one chapter the issue of ageing is discussed and its genetic underpinnings and are we likely to find drugs to help us live longer?
Finally, the topic of plant genetics is covered and she explains how a bee, a human and a tulip share very similar molecular mechanisms but they use them in a different way.
Throughout the book there are references to source material and these are found in the back of the book if you want to learn more (which I do).
Epigenetics is only just getting started and the author refers to conferences that occurred even as late as 2011. This is leading edge science.
It is a fascinating book. Yes, it is a technically demanding book. But if you are keen to get a deeper understanding of the future of genetics then I highly recommend it.
When the human genome project finished sequencing human DNA at the beginning of the century it seemed as though we had the fundamental material on which to ground our genetic understanding. But only 2% of the DNA is responsible for making the building blocks of the embryo. Is the rest of the DNA really junk or are there other things going on?
If identical twins have identical genetic make up and genes are the only factor affecting development, how can the twins develop differently as they get older?
If genes are immutable how can environmental changes have long term biological consequences? Audrey Hepburn's mother was pregnant in Holland during the great Dutch famine of 1944-45. Audrey Hepburn was affected throughout life by stunted growth and poor health. But more than that, not only did offspring of mothers starved in early pregnancy suffer from a tendency to obesity as they inherited the compensation mechanism for starvation, but so did the grandchildren. Clearly an environmental change with biological consequences can be passed on down the generations.
Epigenetics holds the answer. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way - this is epigenetics. When a change in environment has biological consequences that last long after the event itself we are seeing an epigenetic effect in action. Cells read the genetic code in DNA more like a script that needs interpretation. Epigenetics controls the switching on an off of genes as it interpretes the script.
Nessa Carey delves deep into the mechanism. At fertilisation the zygote is a single cell resulting from the fusion of one egg and one sperm. As various cells of the body begin to differentiate each cell becomes specialised. Once it is specialised you cannot easily unspecialise it. However Nessa Carey vividly tells the story of how Professor Yamanaka did just that. He developed a technique to switch off genes. Incidentally she also vividly describes the intense competition between research scientists and often vicious attacks on each other.
Epigenetics depends upon the ability for genes to be switched on and switched off. Nessa describes in great detail how methylation of DNA and histone action causes genes to be switched on or switched off. It is mesmerising to learn about the science even if I cannot remember it!
The excitement involved in the potential of gene therapy and the development of epigenetic drugs to treat cancer is infectious. Epigenetics may be controversial in the scientific community. It makes for a very stimulating if heavy book.
I picked it up because I wanted to know just what DNA methylation was and I came away learning that and much more.
It needs to be read in chronological order because subsequent chapters build on previous explanations. I came with a basic knowledge of genetics which was sufficient for understanding. The basics are given as well, but don't detract from the more detailed scientific content. I would say it is suitable for anybody with GCSE biology behind them, but imagine most readers will be educated to A level or beyond. If you have a degree in genetic science this will be too simple for you.
I can say that I have not enjoyed a non-fiction book so much in a long time. Definitely recommended.
One of the things I particularly liked about this book was that Carey takes time to frame the results of epigenetic modifications in the context of evolution: This helps the reader understand how a system with significant long term health costs can still be selected for (to reap the more important benefits.) I also enjoyed the numerous analogies to explain some of the harder concepts.
A note of caution - make sure you are familiar with genetics before launching into this book. Despite the good chapter structure and progressive build up, a layman attempting to 'run before he can walk' will be likely to find progress discouragingly slow! This book is not 'mind candy', it is quite scholarly, but interspersed with many fascinating and amusing anecdotes.
Overall this really is a very good first book and I hope it's not the last!
The only slightly negative comment I have is about the author's tendency to give long explanations about the referenced professors and their various quirks and habits, and that the book was a bit slow to get started with real information. You have to bide your time until chapter 4 or so. But these are minor issues about the book. The main point is that it is a goldmine of information about epigenetics.
I also particularly liked the short vignettes accompanying the introduction of big name scientists in the field, while these were sometimes overly-complimentary it was a nice touch to add some personality to an author. Another point of interest was the gutsy prediction of future Nobel prize winners, which seems almost taboo in academic circles.
I was surprised at the depth of coverage Carey writes about, with many named non-coding RNAs and histone modifications. While I liked that she got into the nitty-gritty, it may deter those with only a passing interest in the topic. A particular example was the FLC locus and its role in vernalisation, which I remember detesting during an epigenetics module in my undergraduate degree.
Overall: a good read that gains pace and ends with comprehensive explanation of some interesting epigenetics. I'd recommend this book to those with some basic biological knowledge.
Some might consider the work a little heavy on the technical detail, this might well be a valid criticism.
A nice read, compact style and worth having on the shelf.
Each chapter covers a different area of epigenetics and starts off with a simple introduction to the theme before progressing to more complex ideas, usually by incorporating the results from research. In some chapters, I got lost in the later parts, largely I think because of the preponderance of abbreviations and acronyms that the author has to use. But in every chapter, without exception, I found it easy to understand the gist of what was being covered. And it is the gist that is likely to stick in my mind in the years to come, whereas the minutiae of which gene is repressed by what particular mechanism will be quickly forgotten but without much consequence.