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The Design of Life

The Design of Life

Renato Dulbecco
Copyright Date: 1987
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 462
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  • Book Info
    The Design of Life
    Book Description:

    Nobel laureate Renato Dulbecco presents a fascinating overview of the current state of information about life processes, ranging from the characteristics and activities of DNA to sexuality, practical aspects of genetics, communication between cells and between organisms, and the effects of drugs on the brain. He concludes with a provocative discussion of biology and human affairs in which he poses questions about brain programming and its relationship to accountability, freedom of choice, and the future.

    "An impressive overview of contemporary molecular biology. . . . Dulbecco leads us through virtually all of the exciting currents of recent research, from the origin of life to the biological significance of sexuality, from the most elementary evolutionary concepts to the design of the brain."-Joshua Lederberg,American Society for Microbiology News

    "Should be of interest to general readers who want to understand the developments that have taken place in biology during the past 30 years as well as to specialists in the field who want to learn more about Dulbecco's perspective."-American Scientist

    "People [will] enjoy reading and learning about the thread of life in the cell, the mating habits of the bowerbird in New Guinea [and] of the grunion in California, the problem of AIDS, and so on. Read it, enjoy it and learn from it."-David Hall,New Scientist

    "An excellent resource book for students who have difficulty in understanding the terminology of modern molecular biology; also recommended as a resource to any biologist who has struggled to try to make the discipline comprehensible to the nonscientist."-Choice

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16083-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. CHAPTER 1 DNA: The Thread of Life
    (pp. 1-17)

    Tremendous public interest has been generated by the now frequent announcements in the daily press and television media concerning discoveries and developments in the fields of biology and biotechnology. This response is indicative of the hope and faith engendered by the rapid progress these fields have made in recent years. We seem close to manipulating organisms at will, for the purpose either of changing their nature or of producing desired chemicals. No longer must we wait for nature to take its course before we can reap its bounty. Substances previously made in the secrecy of the cell can now be...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Machinery of the Cell
    (pp. 18-41)

    Living organisms, like all matter, are made of atoms. The most common in living things are carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P). Many other atoms, also important, occur in smaller amounts.

    An atom can be compared roughly to the sun and its planets: it comprises a nucleus surrounded by electrons moving around it at different distances. Because the nucleus is positively charged, it holds the negatively charged electrons by electric attraction. The closer the electrons to the nucleus the more strongly they are held. For this reason peripheral electrons can be exchanged between atoms. If...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Energy from the Sun
    (pp. 42-60)

    Life may be thought of as the expression of DNA instructions, which determine the formation and activity of the cells. From this concept we might form the image of life as a totally self-contained, earthly phenomenon. But this image neglects a fundamental point: life is generated by energy. Energy is needed for arranging atoms into molecules and molecules into structures. The electronic changes that determine enzyme activity also require energy, as do ion flows and movements of cells. Earthly life, then, is an expression of the energy of the universe. Conversely, the existence of energy has perhaps made the existence...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Language of DNA
    (pp. 61-90)

    We learned in Chapter 1 that DNA is the source and master of all heredity. How it is able to rule all forms of life is directly dependent on its composition and structure. To understand fully the nature of heredity, then, we must first examine the chemistry of DNA.

    The gigantic molecules of DNA must form only from the association of great numbers of smaller molecules. This fact was borne out by the studies of DNA’s constitution that were carried out in the 1940s and 1950s, before its biological significance was recognized. At that time DNA seemed just another natural...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Organization of Sequences in the Genome
    (pp. 91-101)

    Reading the language of the genes by determining the sequences of their bases is an important approach to the understanding of life. But because the genomes of plants or animals are so very large, the task is immense. Thus, complete DNA sequences have been determined so far only for the smallest organisms, such as viruses. Although the time is approaching when we will be able to describe the whole genome of a plant or animal, for the moment we can describe larger genomes only in general terms, highlighting their overall features and explicating small parts of the whole.

    A variety...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Changing DNA
    (pp. 102-126)

    A major discovery during the early part of this century was the fact that genes change. It was found that populations of the fruitflyDrosophilaproduce from time to time individuals with eyes colored apricot, cinnabar, vermilion, or white instead of the usual red. In some, such as bar-eyed flies, the shape of their eyes change. More recently, studies of DNA sequences have shown that such changes, called mutations, are alterations in the sequence of genes, such as replacements of bases loss of DNA segments, or insertion of new segments. A mutation frequently abolishes the function of a gene, which...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Slave DNA
    (pp. 127-146)

    For a long period in the history of life, DNA was confined to cells, determining their characteristics during the development of individuals or the evolution of species. DNA also learned how to move from one cell to another as a plasmid or a virus, sometimes crossing species barriers. By using its many techniques of recombination, DNA gave rise to an immense number of combinations of genes.

    In the late seventies a new episode began in the saga of DNA mobility. Scientists learned how to join at will genes from cells of widely different origins and to introduce the combined molecules...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Communications among Cells
    (pp. 147-166)

    Every cell contains all the genes of an organism, regardless of its size and complexity, but not all the genes are active at any given time. Rather, they are regulated according to the needs of the cell and the organism. In previous chapters we have seen how regulation takes place within a cell. Now we will consider how it takes into account what is happening in other cells of the same organism. This regulation is based on the transmission of signals between cells through either contacts or special communicator substances.

    Contacts between cells have important consequences. The first step in...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Sex: ♀ and ♂
    (pp. 167-190)

    Self-replication is frequently found in nature. Viral particles, bacterial cells, and cells of higher organisms can all multiply autonomously, without interacting with other cells or organisms. But the multiplication of the higher organism itself, whether an animal or a plant, requires the collaboration of two individuals in a sexual act. Why did DNA relinquish the autonomy of the single genome, submitting to the need for intercourse between two genomes? It is not because in higher organisms a single germ cell is always incapable of replication: in certain lower species, such as bees or aphids or even lizards, a germ cell...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Sex: ♂ and ♀
    (pp. 191-210)

    It would be futile for creatures to be differentiated into males and females if individuals of both sexes did not recognize each other as potential partners, if they did not find each other, if they did not want to mate, or if they did not know how to do it. Because self-fertilization is either impossible or strongly discouraged, all these steps are essential for generating progeny, and they must take place efficiently.

    The problems of attraction and recognition between members of opposite sexes have been solved by nature in a bewildering variety of ways. This variety is not surprising: the goal...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Human Brain over Sex
    (pp. 211-217)

    DNA invented sex as a means of achieving a more efficient method of reproduction—one based on the redistribution of genes in new combinations. But in doing so DNA became the slave of sexuality in an unstoppable progression. In the simplest creatures sexuality was limited to DNA recombination. In more advanced creatures sexuality came to involve additional features in order to promote the fusion of the genomes. These features had the effect of improving the reproductive ability of the DNA and were still fully controlled by it. In the most advanced creatures the brain became part of the control of sex:...

  15. CHAPTER 12 From A to Z
    (pp. 218-256)

    If organisms are to perform their great number of diverse activities efficiently, they must possess many specialized apparatuses. In the simplest organisms, such as bacteria, many activities are carried out by the same cell using different structures: energy transformation takes place in association with membranes; food utilization is carried out by enzymes free within the cells; movement is the function of special appendages such as flagella. But in larger and more complex organisms a variety of functions is carried out by specialized cell types situated in different organs. The taking in of food is the function of the digestive system...

  16. CHAPTER 13 Genes for Defense
    (pp. 257-283)

    In the previous chapter we saw, in a general way, how the genes control the regular, progressive unfolding of the developmental pattern of complex organisms. In this chapter we will consider the development of a single cellular system in detail: that of the immune system. This system, which plays a crucial role in the survival of animals in a competitive environment, develops in a fascinating way. Its operation involves complex interactions between cells and the most bewildering genetic mechanism encountered in the whole of biology.

    Organisms of every kind are exposed to the attack of infectious agents, such as bacteria,...

  17. CHAPTER 14 Essential Signals
    (pp. 284-298)

    During the course of evolution the genes invented the marvelous devices described in the last chapter for defending organisms from invading infectious agents. But the devices by themselves are not enough: they must operate without upsetting the balanced performance of the organism. We will now see how the many constraints introduced by the genes achieve this purpose. The controls, based on a system of signals between cells, can be used as a paradigm for the probable operation of other complex cellular systems.

    Several kinds of interactions between cells control the performance of the immune system. Some arecontactsbetween cells; others...

  18. CHAPTER 15 Unruly Genes
    (pp. 299-314)

    The normal process of development is brought about by the unfolding of the activity of the genes according to a precise program. When some crucial genes start functioning at the wrong time or place, however, the program is upset, and the anomaly generates cancer cells, whose characteristics differ profoundly from the norm. Because they have escaped the regulatory influences that usually govern the expression of the cellular genes, cancer cells express genes that should not be expressed in the normal adult body.

    Cancer cells are said to be malignant because their behavior violates two basic rules of the organization of the...

  19. CHAPTER 16 Exploring the World
    (pp. 315-338)

    Living creatures have invaded all corners of the world, from the tops of mountains to the bottoms of oceans, from polar regions to deserts. Some birds can fly at altitudes of seven thousand to eight thousand meters. Other creatures live in the vents at the bottom of the oceans, where extremely hot fumes from deep in the earth leak through cracks of the earth’s mantle. In any of these environments creatures must eat (often somebody else); they must not be eaten; and they must reproduce. These requirements are essential for the survival of the species. The genes, therefore, had to...

  20. CHAPTER 17 The Machinery of the Brain
    (pp. 339-370)

    In the evolution of life DNA created the brain because devices were needed for sensing the environment: prey had to be identified, predators avoided, a mate located. The primitive brain was capable only of automatic reactions, but as evolution continued, it acquired greater prominence. It evolved to the point of being the arbiter of essential decisions—for instance, whether to mate or not. In the human species the brain has still greater power; it can even decide whether to or not to live.

    DNA had to keep control of these developments. Early in the evolution of life it was easy:...

  21. CHAPTER 18 The Design of the Brain
    (pp. 371-404)

    The organization of connections between neurons is the basis for the operation of the brain. This organization is made up of two parts: the network of axons, which determines how neurons are interconnected, and the synapses, which give meaning to the action potentials relayed by axons, by converting them into signals that are meaningful for the receiving neuron. We will see in this chapter that the organization of connections is built by utilizing two kinds of instructions: those given by the genes and those given by the environment in which the animal lives. The genes acting both in evolution and in...

  22. CHAPTER 19 Understanding from Drugs
    (pp. 405-420)

    Drugs or poisons that act on synapses allow us to explore the functional significance of the organization of the network determined by connections between neurons. Drugs give a deep insight into the way the brain determines the personality of the individual, both in animals and in humans. We will examine the action of a number of drugs in some detail.

    Many drugs act on synapses; their effects are much more subtle than those of substances acting on axons, because synapses offer many more and varied targets. In the axon the targets are mainly limited to the two voltage-dependent ion channels...

  23. CHAPTER 20 A Life Odyssey
    (pp. 421-446)

    DNA has pervaded earth with an enormous variety of creatures. About a million different species exist, many of them lowly, like bacteria or single-celled eukaryotes, and others, of varying degrees of complexity, like plants and animals. Among the creatures more familiar to us are about twenty-five thousand species of birds, six thousand of reptiles, and fifteen thousand of mammals. But underlying this tremendous variety is a common thread—DNA. All living organisms are made up of cells that perform many similar chemical reactions. All organisms have genes made up of DNA (or RNA in some viruses), and they express the...

  24. CHAPTER 21 Epilogue: What is Life?
    (pp. 447-452)

    In this book we have looked into many facets of life: the molecules of living organisms, their functions, how they are connected by regulatory circuits, how they evolve. Now perhaps we can answer the question we asked at the beginning: what is life?

    A traveler through the prairie states often sees the mounds of the prairie dog with one of the animals standing on top, frozen like a statue, the immobile sentinel of its compound. Its instructions, coming probably from its genes, tell it that as long as it stands unflinching and stonelike, even with a predator approaching, nobody, including the...

  25. Index
    (pp. 453-458)