Monday, May 24, 2010

The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine

Book Club... And Then Some!

The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine

by Francis Collins

 Book Review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

Before I was a speech-communication major in college—and since I was in the ninth grade in junior-high-school, I might add—I wanted to be a doctor.  Most of my courses in high school and early college were all science courses.  My interest in science did not wear off, and when I graduated from the University of Michigan, I had to make general science a minor since I had had so many courses in the area, and my graduation would have been delayed for at least a year if I had to pick up a new minor.  All this is explanation for my love of science and, thus, of this book. 

Collins has written a science book on DNA for the masses, and I absorbed the information like a sponge in water.  It is a terrific read not just for Collins’ unbelievable knowledge, the revealing and interesting examples cited, the comfortable, readable, and friendly writing style, or even the specific detail he offers: “The best-understood genes are those that code for protein.  This process involves first making an RNA copy of the DNA; that RNA is then transported to the ribosome ‘protein factories’ in the cytoplasm, where the letters of the RNA code are translated into the amino acids used by proteins....This translation is carried out using a triplet code word; for example, AAA in the RNA codes for the amino acid lysine, and AGA codes for arginine” (p. 7).  Most of the language is not of this style and not nearly as complex. 

But, getting back to my point about why the book is a terrific read.  The book is a terrific read because of how it relates to us all.  Collins writes: “The consequence of all this progress is that a new science has appeared at the very center of biology and medicine: you could call it DNA cryptography.  We’ve intercepted a highly elaborate message of critical importance for the future of the human species” (p. 13).  To drive this point home for every reader, Collins says, “Family health history turns out to be the strongest of all currently measurable risk factors for many common conditions, incorporating as it does information about both heredity and shared environment” (p. 14). 

The book is as reader-friendly as a science book can be.  At the end of nine of his ten chapters, Collins has included a box entitled, “What you can do now to join the personalized medicine revolution,” which offers specific methods for readers to take responsibility for their lives.  If you think you may have trouble with some of the language, there is an eight-page glossary to assist you.  Also, numerous figures help in explaining concepts. 

This is a great book written by the Director of the National Institutes of Health who spent fifteen years as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health.  Collins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, and the National Medal of Science in 2009.  The book is copyrighted 2010.

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The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine

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