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Mapping Our Genes: The Genome Project and Future Medicine.

"Quite suddenly, in the last decade, biology began to spell out human nature in an entirely new way," the author notes in a prologue that prepares the reader for an excursion into a scientific voyage of cosmic proportions.

"At a breathtaking pace, they have proceeded to characterize it in nature's own terms, in the language of molecules and genes. Their research began with the study of heredity, by observing people within their families."

Every amily has stories to tell, and others keep it secret, Wingerson has observed. "Another kind of story is written in our genes. We can read parts of it by looking at each other, but most of the details are obscure."

With the skill of a superb investigative reporter and the talent of a story teller, the author portrays the slow realization that a degenerative disease, Friedrich's ataxia, has been passed down through many generations over diverse branches of a family tree, many who were strangers to each other.

In a chapter entitled "Genetic Detectives," the author describes events leading up to "breaking" the code for cystic fibrosis. "The CF (cystic fibrosis) discovery was momentous," she writes. "Some four percent of Americans carry one copy of the CF gene, now a screening test could be developed and the prospects for a new treatment were suddenly very bright. But the significance of the discovery was greater than that."

Wingerson's jubilant viewpoint is evinced by the realization that confidence now exists in the realization that "we can develop the science and the technology to understand it." She adds, "We don't yet have all the questions, but we will have the answers."

"The work of the next fifteen years," Lois Wingerson predicts, "will entail first creating a crude map of various regions of the genetic material, and later a detailed molecular atlas that is a challenge in which scientists are deeply involved." The real excitement, she says, will come when they can delve more deeply into the "essence" of our biological inheritance.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common, but severe, recessive disease among white Americans. The author emphasizes its evasive qualities because it is often misdiagnosed as malnutrition, penumonia or bronchitis. Until the relevant gene was discovered, the cause of cystic fibrosis remained a mystery to modern medicine.

Most difficult for scientific writers is the ability to explain to the lay reader the concept of genetics. Wingerson's attempt is simple and lucid. She says: "Written as an unbroken sequence of alphabetical symbols for nucleotides (chemical components), the genetic instructions to produce a human being would fill 5,000 books . . . They are contained in the chromosomes, a set of filamentous polymers altogether more than two yards long but infinitessimally thin, and compacted 100,000-fold until they would fit into a space smaller than the period at the end of this sentence."

Just as a book is written using an alphabet of twenty-six symbols assorted into words of five or ten symbols, genes are different assortments of the same four symbols, she explains, the nucleotides are words thousands of symbols long.

"Today the term gene is far more than a loose concept; it is defined as a specific biochemical unit of genetic information, one word in a very long molecular document," she explains. "There appear to be about one hundred thousand human genes; each one specifies the ingredients of a particular protein."

Critcs of funding the Genome Project worry that as much as $3 billion will be required during the next ten years. Wingerson compares the estimated expenditure to the cost of only two or three nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers.

"For that price," she argues, "We can possess the original 'owner's manual' to the human body, now written in terms we can comprehend."

The book defends Genome Project's existence because it seems to be the only hope available in dealing with diseases that defy medication and all other therapies. "In the future," she predicts, "they may be able to tell us what's coming before it strikes, by looking at our genes."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Vegetus Publications
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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