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The Epigenetics Revolution.

The Epigenetics Revolution. By Nessa

Carey. 2012. Columbia University Press.

(ISBN 9781848312920). 339 pp. Hardcover.


The PBS Nova episode "Ghost in Your Genes" has served as an introduction to epigenetics for some members of the general public, biology teachers, and their students. However, this exciting and important field of study is discussed in three pages or less in some of the most recent college-level biology textbooks (e.g., Reese et al., 9th ed.; Starr & Taggart, 13th ed.; Freeman, 4th ed.; Hillis, et al.). With welcome expanded coverage, Carey, an epigenetics researcher, provides details about her field with a clear and captivating narrative that employs analogies, diagrams, a broad array of examples, and an accurate portrayal of the nature of science.

For the novice, Carey uses the analogy of a script and film to explain the difference and interactions between genetics and epigenetics. Shakespeare's script of Romeo and Juliet has resulted in countless different films and stage productions; it is compared to an individual's genes. During production of a given film, different actors may be given copies on which a director has written notes for their characters. As these notes affect the outcome and quality of the film, so do epigenetic markers in the vicinity of certain genes affect their transcription and the resulting structure and function of a cell.

While providing this and other analogies, Carey takes care to not oversimplify for the non-scientist. The introduction includes a table providing the international convention used in writing the names and symbols of genes and proteins; then, whenever specific studies are discussed, these conventions are followed. Thus, in an examination of Rett Syndrome research in humans and mice, the symbols MeCP2, MeCP2, Mecp2, and Mecp2 are used prolifically. However, the presentation is so clear that these become acceptable shorthand rather than scientific jargon. In addition, teachers who chafe at the misrepresentations in the media will be pleased by the author's careful use of "hypothesis" and "consistent with" in her descriptions of research.

The book's first figure, "Waddington's epigenetic landscape," is apparently widely seen at conferences involving epigenetics. Originally used by Conrad Waddington in discussing developmental biology, it clarifies cell differentiation and stem cell research, both of which are tightly linked to epigenetic events in the cell. Throughout the book, Carey refers the reader back to Waddington's image to clearly illustrate how epigenetic factors determine whether a cell is pluripotent or differentiated.

Various aspects of biology are linked by epigenetics, as illustrated by examples such as that of vinclozolin given in Chapter 6, "The Sins of the Fathers." This fungicide and environmental toxin (ecology) is a competitive inhibitor of testosterone for the androgen receptor (cell communication). When applied to pregnant rats at a specific time during pregnancy (development), male offspring for at least four generations have testicular defects and reduced fertility.

Much of the research included in the book involves humans (e.g., twin studies), rats, cats (X-inactivation), and agouti mice. However, a few chapters examine epigenetics studies in other organisms, including the vernalization of seeds in some flowering plants, the effects of royal jelly in honeybees, and the aging of yeast.

Teachers desiring a better understanding of noncoding RNA molecules (ncRNA) will appreciate their lengthy discussion in Chapter 10, "The Message is Not the Medium." Both long ncRNA molecules such as Xist and very short, microRNAs (miRNA) are discussed, but with specific disclaimers about how much is not yet known about their roles in gene expression or about their usefulness in treating cancer.

The Epigenetics Revolution is an excellent introduction to important research at the frontiers of biology. It is interesting and accessible not only to biologists and biology students, but also to anyone who wishes to better understand stem cells, cancer, genetics, and development.


Paula Petterson

Science Teacher and Head of College Advising

Ridgeview Classical Schools

Fort Collins, CO 80525

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Author:Petterson, Paula
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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