In “The Gene”, Siddharth Mukherjee begins with a personal history of his family’s struggles with bipolar disorder/manic depression and he embarks on a quest to make sense of it by unravelling the story of genes and their profound influence on human life. From Pythagoras’s theory of ‘spermism’ according to which, man provided the potion that magically formed a baby in the woman’s womb whose role was merely to nourish and give birth, we get treated to the various theories that were formulated, disproved and rediscovered. The first chapters trace out the history of ground breaking discoveries before and after what we now know as “Genes” (I think of these times as BG and AG!). Siddharth Mukherjee’s writing style is very engaging and it is remarkable to rediscover the history behind these discoveries that I read about in text books. It describes in good detail the struggles, disappointments and the ridicule faced by many scientists who made great strides in giving shape and structure to genes. I particularly enjoyed these parts that are peppered throughout the book.
Once scientists knew the structure of genes, it was tantalizing to think of ways to manipulate them. Gene cloning allows one to cut and paste two completely unrelated pieces of DNA and make multiple copies of this new DNA. This is a procedure I have done countless number of times as a researcher and it works beautifully. However, when gene cloning was a new thing in the 1960s, crucial parts of this process were being worked on by different investigators asking different questions and they needed to come together to allow for successful manipulation of genes. Of course once you know how to manipulate genes, what next? These questions were highly debated by scientists and members of the larger society at the Asilomar Conferences (1973 and 1975) held in California. The debates that ensued in these meetings were contentious. There were doubts expressed, accusations hurled and potential for lawsuits discussed. But somehow at the end of it all, self-imposed regulations were formulated by a small group of scientists that surprisingly most attendees agreed to adhere to. Gene cloning gave birth to the Biotech industry and transformed human lives forever. Siddharth Mukherjee revisits few of these raging biotech successes by writing an exciting account of the race to make human insulin for diabetic patients and recounting the painful reasons that motivated scientists to manufacture Clotting factor VIII protein for Haemophilic patients. Many discoveries since then have allowed us to manipulate genetic information in various interesting ways helping us unlock and decipher the entire genetic information contained in an organism.
The ‘Gene’ presents us not only with these amazing scientific advancements that helped shape our understanding of genes and the science behind trait inheritance but also devotes significant time to exploring the larger consequences and impacts of these on society, pushing the reader to pause and think. Back in the 1920s, the knowledge that your genes make you the way you are unleashed a spectrum of interpretations. It led to the idea of “Eugenics” the basis of which was to have a society devoid of ‘genetically unfit and inferior’ humans. The proponents of Eugenics defined vaguely what constituted ‘unfit and inferior’ and proceeded to categorize men and women, isolate and banish them into colonies and force sterilize women while selecting for ‘fittest’ humans. They believed they were merely applying genetic principles and ‘accelerating the betterment of human race’. Eugenics motivated Hitler and his advisers to pronounce superiority of the Aryan race and to order one of the worst ethnic cleansings in history.
A whole range of ethical questions will continue to be posed to scientists and the larger society as genetic information continues to be unraveled and modified with new technologies. Knowledge of your genetic make-up is powerful information. What if we could use this knowledge to alleviate the suffering of patients who are normal except for one defective gene? What about most diseases where more than one gene is generally involved – like bipolar disorder that Siddharth Mukherjee starts off the book with? What if we can make small edits to genes with just a small concoction? Can these edits be made even before a baby is born? These are realities that are upon us already and the book offers plenty to learn and reflect on.
“The Gene” is not just Siddharth Mukherjee’s quest. It should be all of ours too.