the gene: an intimate history

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

If you read Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize winning Emperor of All Maladies, you may already have the sense that his compelling work can feel equally accessible and difficult with complexity. 

And of course it is, because he's discussing cancer there, genes here. If anyone can make the technical aspects of these elements as explicit and as easy as they can possibly be to understand, it's Mukherjee. He does the best any science writer can do, in my reading experience. 

And yet. And yet I found myself persevering sometimes. There were sections, in this 608 page journey, where I assured myself that I didn't need to absolutely and completely understand each lesson in order to consume the whole and to appreciate these bits in the larger context.

I was correct in this assessment. I'll still assign The Gene four stars over on goodreads, despite that I walk away from it feeling that if I'd just spent more time re-reading some bits, I might better have been able to visualize the structures of recombinant genes and to comprehend actions such as splicing genes.     

Because Mukherjee does equally as well delving into the other aspects of the gene, including the history, morality and philosophy, current scientific and medical practices, and his own family history, my lack of fully understanding some of the technical aspects are easily overcome.  

Some fascinating things I learned: 

'Gene' was initially intended to be pronounced like 'Jen' as in 'proGENesis', from which the word originated, but it was immediately pronounced the way we do now. 

"On a vast stretch of chromosome eleven, for instance, there is a causeway dedicated entirely to the sensation of smell. Here, a cluster of 155 closely related genes encodes a series of protein receptors that are professional smell receptors. Each receptor binds to a unique chemical structure, like a key to a lock, and generates a distinctive sensation of smell in the brain - spearmint, lemon, caraway, jasmine, vanilla, ginger, pepper. An elaborate form of gene regulation ensures that only one odor-receptor gene is chosen from this cluster and expressed in a single smell-sensing neuron in the nose, thereby enabling us to discriminate thousands of smells."

On twins, separated at birth, and reunited and then studied: 

"Both laughed uncontrollably, erupting into peals of giggles with minimal provocation (the staff called them the 'giggle twins'). They played pranks on the staff, and on each other. Both were five feet, three inches tall, and both had crooked fingers. Both had gray-brown hair; both had died it an unusual shade of auburn. They tested identically on IQ tests. Both had fallen down the stairs as children and broken their ankles; both had a consequent fear of heights, and yet both, despite some clumsiness, had taken lessons in ballroom dancing. Both had met their future husbands through dancing lessons." 


"A pair of twins had an identical manner of rubbing their noses, and - even though they had never met - had each invented a new word to describe the odd habit, squidging. Two sisters in Bouchard's study shared the same pattern of anxiety and despair. As teenagers, they confessed, they had been haunted by the same nightmare: of feeling suffocated with various - but typically metal - things: 'door-knobs, needles and fishhooks.'"

The incredibly precise and delicate operations initiated by genes - from distinguishing smells to much more crucial things such as hormonal and developmental actions - are alarming and almost fantastical. Things that can't seemingly possibly be explained by the actions of genes, such as the examples given above with the twins like falling down the stairs and breaking their ankles, or coming up with the same new word for the same action, and yet seem to somehow have a basis in heredity because of identical twins experiencing them, are freaky and so fascinating to read. 

As with the Emperor, Mukherjee makes what could be an otherwise weighty and often difficult subject rather fascinating and explicable. 

The Gene: An Intimate History was released in the US on May 17, 2016. An advanced copy was provided to me by the publisher, Scribner (Simon and Schuster).