Monday, August 29, 2016

Gene – An Intimate Story by Siddharth Mukherjee

I was a student of Biology in college.   At that time, only two topics excited me, these are Evolution and Genetics.  Now I imagine, if only these two topics had to be studied I would have studied further.  By the time I finished graduation, I had hated further studies. 

Now I know after reading this book that even Mendel, whose experiments led to many discoveries about Genes, had not qualified in his entrance exam for teacher training and failed repeatedly.  But this lead to the situation, whereby he tended the Garden attached to the seminary where he was undergoing training for a religious career.  This gave him the opportunity to observe successive generations of Pea plants. He did his experiments in Pea Plants.  This in turn gave him the insights which led to new discovery of rules of inheritance physical traits. -In those days there was no word for genetics, which came into existence later.  As his interests did not clash with that of the people in the Seminary, he was allowed to continue his experiments.

          I was never more than an average student.  I had other interests such as reading all kinds of books and Sports, especially Football.  I wanted to be a poet or a songwriter.  But I was shy and timid.   I feared that I would remain unemployed and visualized a life in poverty. I tried for a job and got it by fluke.

          After many decades, when I found the books of Richard Dawkins I could reconnect to Genetics and Evolution. What attracted me to Richard Dawkins was the title of his book ‘The God Delusion’.  I glanced this book and decided to read it.  Then I read his other books such as ‘The Selfish Gene’, Greatest Show on Earth, The Blind Watch Maker, Ancestor’s Tale etc. These books made me realize that I had missed the great opportunity of studying a great subject (Zoology) and what had put me off was the syllabus and method of teaching the subject and not the subject itself.  Then there was my teen age angst.  I immensely enjoyed reading the books of Richard Dawkins and has become a fan of him.

          I noticed Siddharth Mukherjee’s book, ‘Emperor of All Melodies – A biography of  Cancer’, after coming to know that it had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  Cancer is more about unruly behaviour of cells than about anything else. This wonderful book kindled my interest in Biology and Cells.  I had read it two times (which I normally don’t do) to fully understand the contents.  I had also gifted two copies of the book to two doctors, both relations of mine.

          S. Mukherjee’s next book is about ‘Genes’.  Now that I have read it, I can say that this is also one of the excellent books I have ever read.  I like his style; I was attracted by his wisdom and his quotations from Classical Greek authors, ancient Sanskrit Songs to the latest authors including Susan Sontag. He has a very simple, lucid narrative style.  It is like reading a Agatha Christie story, anxiously waiting for the next scene. 

          The strenuous efforts of scientists, the pleasure of discovery, the pain of failure, of patients dying when the scientists expected them to live longer, the investigations into the causes of failures, the re-jigging of programmes, medicines and procedures, unexpected action, reaction and sudden improvements in the health of some of the patients have all been portrayed with the complexity and in the simple words and with historical perspective without never losing the grip on the story.

          Genes are invisible dots on the chromosomes which are found inside the cells which are basic constituents of our body. Genes are passed on from parent to offspring.  Genes determine the physical structures/traits of all life forms.  They contribute, along with our environment and living conditions, in defining our organs and their functions and modification.  Genes are also suspected to be one of the determinants of mental abilities.  In this books the authors patiently and logically explains what Genes are, what is the relationships between one generations to the next which is determined by Genes, action, interaction between one gene and another, what triggers the action by Genes, how the Gene type (Genotype) finds expression (phynotype) etc. 

          The unruly cancer cells and the Stemcells that give hope to eradicate the disabilities and diseases of the human beings, the lives of Scientists, ups and downs in their life, Commerical interests which have a stake in finding the quick solutions to the diseases in order to make quick money, the controls that the govt. and institutions have put in place to stop unethical practices and also the facts that these very controls that stifle creativity and experiments, these are some of the aspects covered in the book.  

          There are things that are codified in Genes.  Sometimes the codes are expressed in the outward/form and at other times they remain hidden to be exhibited in a future generation.  There are other chemicals that are formed near Genes that also contribute to the inheritance of traits. There are trigger switches that operate on their own to initiate action, defend the body from virus, and to stop growing.  Some times they do not operate the switch of stopping the growth, that is called Cancer.  How and when these Genes or their fellow chemicals acts cannot be predicted.  Human beings are learning to investigate, control, direct the Genes to do something.  These are the frontiers of Biological and chemical sciences, of the things that reside very deep inside us and other life forms.

          As to the question whether our traits/character is determined by ‘Nature’ or ‘Nurture, the tentative answer is that both Nature and Nurture influence our growth and behaviour.  Earlier, only mutations that happened on their own stimulation changed the traits of the species.  But we have now started interefering with the process of growth of organisms in a way no human or God could imagine.   

          The uncertainty of action and reaction of the Genes, expression or suppression of specific traits led me into the wonderland of deepest secrets of human body.  It was an exhilarating journey of discovery.  It is the story of our past and hope for our future.  The goal of treatment to all of the diseases is in front of us and we see light at the end of the tunnel.   

          There are also disturbing questions.  We have gone so far as to develp the capacity to modify the Gene structure which in turn determines the physical characteristics of all life forms, including human beings.  Has the time come for MAN to play GOD?  If man starts modifying/interfering in the fundamental nature of our being where will he lead it to?   

          Nature has imbibed in us (and all living things) the processes that have enabled us to reach thus far after millions of years of evolution.  These processes are essentially means for our survival for such a long time.  Can human beings imagine, perceive or visualize what effects the research in Genes or interefering in their functions may have on life on earth?. 

          It appears reasonably possible that we can produce made-to-order human beings.  Will these human beings have all the invisible processesses which the naturally produced life forms have imbibed in them over millions of years? There is a possibility that things may out of control and reach an irreversible doom.

          But it is also true that despite these nagging questions, human beings will improve their health to unprecedented levels in the near future.  May be there will be a day when human beings can live forever like the mythological ‘Markendeya’, on the blessings of God Shiva.  But it is important that he also died in the end.    

          Any person with ordinary level of understanding English can understand this book.  It was a pleasure to read this book. 

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