The Suffering Gene

The Suffering Gene: Environmental Threats to our Health

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Suffering Gene
    Book Description:

    Roy Burdon discusses how our genes work, how they are adversely effected by a huge range of factors - toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals, excessive sunlight, nuclear radiation from power plants and the military, other forms of radiation, food contaminants, and atmospheric pollutants - and how they may be affected by genetic engineering. Burdon explains how the body defends itself from external attack, what happens when these defences are overwhelmed, and what humanity needs to do to develop a much more careful approach to new technologies, industrial processes, and food production.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7166-2
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Figures and tables
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-x)
  5. 1 Early warning signals
    (pp. 1-13)

    The days grow longer and warmer as spring follows winter. Each year, buds appear on the trees, leaves and flowers form, and seeds develop; life and growth surge up in plants and animals. We are part of a system that seems to behaves like a machine, constantly repeating itself, season by season, year by year. Yet, as we enter a new millennium, there are signs that the workings of this machine cannot be taken for granted. The environment is certainly at present not in anything approaching meltdown, but all is not well. Few days go past without media reports on...

  6. 2 Genes – the targets of hostilities
    (pp. 14-35)

    The beginning of the new millennium saw gatherings of religious groups all around the world, hopeful of witnessing a second coming. In the event, the faithful were denied a holy reappearance. Moreover, there were no signs of any progress towards the eternal damnation of disbelievers, or even a Y2K bug. What did occur, however, around that time was the final and miraculous unravelling of the human genome in draft form. The human genome is the complete recipe of the genes that govern the way we are made and how we function. This deciphering was an extraordinary event, and the achievement...

  7. 3 Nuclear attack
    (pp. 36-49)

    For much of the twentieth century, security has taken precedence over environmental considerations. By far the worst offenders in this context were military—industrial complexes, especially those involved in the nuclear weapons business. Driven by the need to end the Second World War, as well as by the intellectual excitement surrounding the then recent discoveries of the fundamental forces binding atoms, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the culmination of intense research efforts by American and British physicists in the 1940s. Shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning of 6 August 1945, an object fell earthwards fromEnola...

  8. 4 A phoney war?
    (pp. 50-56)

    Although the threats from ionizing radiation are very real, there is a growing tendency to see risk everywhere. Should we still watch television? Is it safe to use hairdryers considering our close proximity to their heat and electromagnetic fields? How far back should we stand whilst heating up our chips in the microwave?

    One of the most widely publicized of such concerns is the electromagnetic radiation from mobile telephones, computers and electricity pylons. The possibility has been raised that these may be a health hazard, and could also lead to the development of cancers. This may simply be a symptom...

  9. 5 Chemical attack
    (pp. 57-73)

    Almost forty years ago Rachel Carson’sSilent Springwarned of the impact of chemicals on the environment. No single book on our environment has done more to awaken and alarm the world. It arose from Carson’s frustrated attempts to become a professional marine biologist at a particular time when women were notably unwelcome in the academic community. Her views concerning the potential dangers of synthetic chemical pesticides in the environment took shape during her time in various relatively low-level government posts, as scientist and editor. She was a courageous ecologist, but, most importantly, she became an influential nature writer. Her...

  10. 6 Food attack
    (pp. 74-92)

    Food is a complex affair. After sex and football there is probably no subject about which more is written and spoken. Most of us relish the pleasures of the table, and satisfy our physical requirement for nutrition at the same time. We can survive on, thrive on and enjoy a wide variety of foods. The types of foods that individuals or populations eat are influenced by many factors including availability, technology, economics, religion, cultural habits, social conditions, nutrition and taste. Although food is necessary for the support of life, for some time now we have been aware of many harmful,...

  11. 7 Enemies from within
    (pp. 93-101)

    You might get the impression from all that has been said so far that, if you avoided exposure to sunlight, nuclear radiation, tobacco smoke, car exhaust fumes, asbestos, mycotoxins, toxic chemicals and other industrial pollutants, your DNA would remain unharmed. Unfortunately, it is not so. As time goes by, your DNA would still become damaged. When examined closely, a considerable proportion of the damage to DNA is indicative of the work of free radicals.

    Free radicals are chemical entities that, characteristically, have an unpaired electron in their make-up. They cause a problem because they can ‘mug’ a variety of molecules...

  12. 8 A first line of defence
    (pp. 102-112)

    In 1985, the British Antarctic Atmospheric Survey rang alarm bells around the world when they discovered that ozone levels in the stratosphere (10—40 km above sea level) over the South Pole were dwindling alarmingly during the months of September and October, the time when the sun returns at the end of the polar spring. Worse still, this thinning had been going on since the 1960s. By 1987, Antarctic ozone levels, over an area corresponding to the size of the USA, were around half that of normal.

    Why all the fuss? Up until about 3 billion years ago there was...

  13. 9 The main defence forces
    (pp. 113-128)

    The ozone layer does a fairly good job, or at least it did. Up until recendy, only around 1 per cent of the sun’s potentially dangerous UVB radiation penetrated to the earth’s surface; the remainder was screened out. Any increase has to be a matter of concern, and begs the question of whether humans have any inbuilt methods of providing protection from environmental threats. Fortunately, each of us has quite an array of systems that can further act in our defence. Things are better than you might expect from the previous chapters.

    From the preceding chapters, it is clear that...

  14. 10 What if our defences are overwhelmed?
    (pp. 129-143)

    The new techniques of genetic engineering have made it possible to create laboratory mice that lack the genetic information for certain types of DNA repair. These mice turn out to be extremely sensitive to agents that damage DNA. Moreover, they show many signs of premature ageing and they readily develop cancers. Such abnormalities attest to the crucial importance of DNA repair systems in protecting organisms from DNA damage.

    DNA damage is particularly threatening to cells during the processes of DNA copying and subsequent cell division. The process of copying itself could make the damage irreparable, and ensuing cell division can...

  15. 11 Can we survive the siege?
    (pp. 144-164)

    Cancer is a very serious consideration. Around 30,000 women in the UK die of breast cancer every year. As a whole, the disease is now striking the general population at a rate that is increasing at 1 per cent per annum. Today, cancer kills one man in two and one woman in three. However, it is estimated that at least 80 per cent of cancers are likely to be due to environmental factors that could be either eradicated or reduced. Industrialized countries seem to have disproportionately more cancers than countries with few industries, and studies on populations that migrate from...

  16. 12 Could gene damage redirect our evolution?
    (pp. 165-176)

    The word ‘mutation’ may conjure up visions of grotesque, humanoid monsters. On top of this, the idea that environmental factors can cause a significant number of mutations could well kindle fears that some sort of apocalypse is nigh, given the worrying changes in our current environment. It is quite understandable to ask whether these environmental changes will endanger not only our present health and lifestyle but also the way in which humankind might evolve in the future. The possibility that the environment could influence evolution certainly exercised the minds of a number of eminent biologists in the nineteenth century. Some...

  17. 13 Genes to take the strain
    (pp. 177-190)

    The idea of a quick genetic fix that would allow us, like Superman with ‘a leap and a bound’, to short-circuit natural selection and survive severely hostile environmental conditions seems at first sight the stuff of science fiction, rather than reality. However, in view of the large amount of accumulated knowledge of genes and their manipulation that we have acquired in the last fifty years, the potential feasibility of such approaches merits some consideration.

    Are there any genes available from any organisms, anywhere, that might allow us to take the strain of severe environmental change and emerge relatively unscathed? Since...

  18. 14 Gene attacks by humans
    (pp. 191-207)

    Genetic engineering is new threat to sportwas a recent headline in a local newspaper. The article’s author was genuinely concerned at the spectre of a nightmare team of genetically engineered giant basketball players, or squad of sprinters who could make present world record holders look puny and pedestrian. He was clearly distressed at the sprint pace of scientific progress, his views probably stemming from much press speculation that designer babies may soon be a real possibility. His concern originates from the steady progress from the discoveries, beginning in the 1970s, that genes could not only be isolated but also...

  19. 15 DNA and planetary stewardship
    (pp. 208-227)

    A mere sixty years ago, we were only just beginning to appreciate that DNA was the key molecule in heredity, but we had no idea what it looked like, or how it operated. Now we understand its stunning simplicity and the miraculous mechanisms by which it is copied and decoded. The recipe of genes that govern the way we are made and how we function has now been elucidated. It is one of the most significant scientific advancements in our history. Whilst many new answers will be forthcoming, these will inevitably raise new questions. We may have thought we were...

  20. References
    (pp. 228-244)
  21. Index
    (pp. 245-252)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)