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Genetic Twists of Fate

Genetic Twists of Fate

Stanley Fields
Mark Johnston
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Genetic Twists of Fate
    Book Description:

    News stories report almost daily on the remarkable progress scientists are making in unraveling the genetic basis of disease and behavior. Meanwhile, new technologies are rapidly reducing the cost of reading someone's personal DNA (all six billion letters of it). Within the next ten years, hospitals may present parents with their newborn's complete DNA code along with her footprints and APGAR score. In Genetic Twists of Fate, distinguished geneticists Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston help us make sense of the genetic revolution that is upon us. Fields and Johnston tell real life stories that hinge on the inheritance of one tiny change rather than another in an individual's DNA: a mother wrongly accused of poisoning her young son when the true killer was a genetic disorder; the screen siren who could no longer remember her lines because of Alzheimer's disease; and the president who was treated with rat poison to prevent another heart attack. In an engaging and accessible style, Fields and Johnston explain what our personal DNA code is, how a few differences in its long list of DNA letters makes each of us unique, and how that code influences our appearance, our behavior, and our risk for such common diseases as diabetes or cancer.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28938-2
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 Your Personal Genome: Googling Your DNA
    (pp. 1-8)

    Not many homeowners can boast having a garage that changed the world. But Susan Wojcicki can. She can look back at her decision in 1998 to rent out her garage at 232 Santa Margarita Avenue in Menlo Park, California, as a world-changing event. Her renters, two graduate students in computer science at nearby Stanford University, needed space to develop a new company around their revolutionary approach to searching the web. Sergey Brin and Larry Page would not occupy her garage for long; they soon needed more spacious headquarters for the company that would launch their combined net worth into the...

  6. I What Do Genes Do?

    • 2 Genes Are the Instructions for Life: AIDS and the Uncommon Man
      (pp. 11-20)

      Just one small change in one gene might have given the world more books likePebble in the Sky, The Stars Like Dust, The Foundation Trilogy,andI, Robot. To science fiction enthusiasts of a certain age, the publication of a new Isaac Asimov novel or short story was cause for celebration. Before iPods and instant messaging, before YouTube and Facebook, before Xboxes and PlayStations, young fans would curl up under the bedcovers with one of Asimov’s intergalactic tales and read late into the night. For a period in the 1960s and 1970s, Asimov’s large black glasses and mutton-chop sideburns...

    • 3 Proteins Are the Workhorses of the Cell: Misdiagnosis of a Metabolic Malady
      (pp. 21-32)

      Patricia Stallings had had a tough life. She had spent several years on the skids. Homeless much of the time, she found it difficult to take care of herself, let alone the son she had borne out of wedlock. When accused of child abuse for not adequately caring for the child, she gave him up for adoption.

      But by the summer of 1989 Patty’s life had turned around. She found a good man in David Stallings, and their marriage gave her the kind of life she could only dream about a few years earlier. With their move into a trim,...

    • 4 All from a Single Cell: How a Fertilized Egg Develops into a Baby
      (pp. 33-46)

      Nine months after a human egg is fertilized, a baby’s lungs fill with air and she bawls out her first lusty cry. Just thirty-eight weeks ago she was a single cell, created by the union of one of her father’s sperm and one of her mother’s eggs. How did one cell give rise, in that short span of time, to an organized mass of human flesh with limbs and lungs in the correct places, with the proper number of fingers and toes, and with eyes and ears and everything else working properly? It seems like a miracle. While it is...

    • 5 When the Gene Is the Cure: Immunodeficiency and Gene Therapy
      (pp. 47-60)

      David Phillip Vetter could not live like this any longer. His doctors knew it; his parents knew it; he knew it. They all agreed he had to risk the bone-marrow transplant. Without it he would have to continue living in the bubble—his sterile isolation chamber—waiting for a cure to be developed for his affliction. Because David suffered from Severe Combined Immuno-deficiency (SCID), he had no immune system to fight off even the most timid of invaders. He had already waited for twelve years, and still no cure for his condition was in sight. On October 21, 1983, he...

    • 6 When Cells Are the Cure: Diabetes and Stem Cells
      (pp. 61-72)

      Disease is egalitarian: it strikes the privileged as well as the downtrodden, the youthful as well as the aged. Few children born in 1907 had the advantages in life of Elizabeth Evans Hughes. The daughter of Charles Evans Hughes, governor of New York, who later served as secretary of state and as a distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Elizabeth was a bright and vivacious young girl. But by the summer of 1922 fourteen-year-old Elizabeth stood five feet tall yet weighed only forty-five pounds. She was so emaciated, her muscles so wasted, that she could barely walk. Elizabeth was...

  7. II The Inheritance of the Gene

    • 7 When One Gene Is Enough: The Enzyme Missing in an Inherited Disease
      (pp. 75-84)

      The particular genetic endowment we receive from our parents or bequeath to our children can be a powerful motivator in our lives. For those confronted with a devastating inherited disease, the deep-seated questions—why did this disease occur? how did it occur?—can be a potent force driving the motivation to do something about it. That force sometimes leads to undreamed-of accomplishments. It led one woman to worldwide renown.

      In 1914, an American woman who had been raised in China by her missionary parents returned to Chinkiang after attending college in Virginia, to care for her ill mother. There she...

    • 8 When One Gene Is Too Much: At Risk for Huntingtonʹs Disease
      (pp. 85-94)

      Mike O’Brien, thirty-nine, and his brother Chris, thirty-two, wanted to become the first American brothers to reach the summit of Mount Everest together. Experienced climbers, they had previously scaled twenty-five mountains together, including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Ranier in Washington, and Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world, in Tibet. On the website they set up to document their Everest expedition, they described themselves as “the 4th and 7th children born into the O’Brien clan of seven. [Their parents] passed on to their children fine table manners, swimming talents, [a sense] of humor, good looks and a strong...

    • 9 Genes to Remember: The Growing Burden of Alzheimerʹs Disease
      (pp. 95-104)

      Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino began her life in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918, at the end of the First World War. The daughter of a showgirl from Washington, D.C., and a flamenco dancer from Madrid, Cansino was destined to go on to a celebrated career punctuated by tragedy. Intensely shy and quiet as a girl, she was kept out of school by a domineering father (who also sexually abused her, according to one biographer) so that she could perform Spanish dances in Mexican casinos and on gambling boats. At the age of eighteen, Cansino married another controlling man, a thrice-divorced...

    • 10 Blaming Our Genes: The Heritability of Behavior
      (pp. 105-114)

      It’s easy to accept that human disorders such as phenylketonuria or cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease have a wholly genetic basis. And you likely have no problem believing that your risk of being afflicted with an illness such as heart disease, diabetes, or colon cancer is influenced by your personal DNA code. The question of heredity becomes more complicated, however, when we consider complex behaviors. Is your chance of having a sunny disposition affected by your genes? How about if you are a pessimist—is pessimism an inherited trait? What if you’re an early-morning or a late-night person, or compulsively...

  8. III Finding the Gene

    • 11 Mistakes Happen: The Mutations of Cancer
      (pp. 117-128)

      The Gross sisters, Pauline and Tilly, were well known in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for their skill as seamstresses. The sisters served an upscale clientele in Gay Nineties Ann Arbor, including Dr. Aldred Scott Warthin. A renaissance man—accomplished musician, certified music teacher, scholar and scientist, author of three books—Warthin was a pathologist on the faculty at the University of Michigan, a position he held for thirty-six years.

      Warthin admired Pauline Gross’s work and employed her to supplement his wardrobe. He also recognized her intelligence and enjoyed his conversations with her. It was during one of those conversations, in 1895,...

    • 12 Reshuffling the Genetic Deck: A Cancer Gene in the Neighborhood
      (pp. 129-144)

      Seymour Benzer was the scientific equivalent of Bo Jackson, the star athlete who dodged defenders on football fields for the Los Angeles Raiders and hit towering home runs on baseball diamonds for the Kansas City Royals, the Chicago White Sox and the California Angels. Benzer, active as a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena until his death in 2007 at age 86, was trained as a physicist but made breakthrough discoveries in two unrelated areas of biology. One of those discoveries is central to our story.

      Benzer obtained his doctoral degree in physics from Purdue University shortly...

    • 13 A Family Affair: Mapping a Gene for ALS
      (pp. 145-156)

      Only two years after proclaiming himself “the luckiest man alive” at his tearful retirement from baseball at Yankee Stadium in 1939, Lou Gehrig succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Lou Gehrig’s disease usually strikes in middle age, as it did Gehrig: the diagnosis of ALS that turned out to be a death sentence was handed to him on his thirty-sixth birthday. This was about a month after the first baseman took himself out of a game against the Detroit Tigers because he was no longer able to perform at the level he, his teammates, and fans had come to expect....

    • 14 Signposts for Common Disease: Focusing on Macular Degeneration
      (pp. 157-168)

      The life of Henry Anatole Grunwald revolved around words. Grunwald left Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938 as a teenager and made his way to New York by way of France, Morocco, and Portugal. He joinedTimemagazine as a copy boy and rose to become managing editor by the age of forty-five. He ran the magazine for the next nine years, and then moved on to become editor in chief of all Time Inc. publications for another eight years. During Grunwald’s managing editorship,Timehelped set society’s agenda by adding regular sections to the magazine such as “The Sexes,” “Behavior,” and...

    • 15 The President Who Swallowed Rat Poison: Preventing the Next Heart Attack
      (pp. 169-178)

      Science progresses as much by serendipity as by deductive reasoning. Discoveries arise from a confluence of chance observations and carefully controlled measurements made by single-minded visionaries who are driven to spend their days and nights in the laboratory. Nowhere is this interplay of the planned and the providential better seen than in the story of hemorrhaging cows, a potent rat poison, a failed suicide attempt, and a president’s heart attack—all part of the history of a prescription drug taken every day by more than two million Americans. New treatment strategies with this popular but potentially dangerous medicine are in...

  9. IV The Gene in Evolution

    • 16 The Law of Evolution: Darwin, Wallace, and the Survival of the Fittest
      (pp. 181-196)

      Who made the second successful ascent of Mt. Everest? Who ran the second under-four-minute mile? Who was the second African American to play major league baseball? Who was the second man to set foot on the moon, and what did he say when he arrived there? If the public takes little note of those who come in second, scientists pay even less homage to the also-ran: priority of discovery is one of their few rewards. Which is why the unusual career of the second person generally credited with articulating the theory of evolution is captivating.

      Saying that someone is perhaps...

    • 17 Around the World in Fifty Thousand Years: The Genetics of Race
      (pp. 197-206)

      Top-seeded Jimmy Connors stepped onto Centre Court at Wimbledon for the 1975 men’s final having declared that it would be “just another day at the office.” Ranked number one in the world, the twenty-two-year-old defending Wimbledon champion had not dropped a single set en route to the final. The brash left-hander was the overwhelming favorite against the other finalist, sixth-seeded Arthur Ashe. Connors was famed for his explosive outbursts on the court; the thirty-one-year-old Ashe calmly closed his eyes and meditated between games.

      The three previous times these rivals had met, Connors had prevailed decisively, and commentators at Wimbledon that...

    • 18 Your Personal DNA Code: Summing Up
      (pp. 207-210)

      If you’ve made the journey with us to this point, you’ve learned some little-known facts about an eclectic collection of characters, some obscure—Patricia Stallings, Mike O’Brien, and Andrew Jackson Mattingly—others world-famous—Pearl Buck, Rita Hayworth, and Katie Couric. All of them confronted the heart-breaking consequences of a small change in their DNA code or in that of a loved one. You saw that the prognosis of people who are dealing with a lethal infectious disease, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur Ashe, is affected by their genetic endowments. And you have come to know some renowned biologists—Karl Link,...

  10. Notes and Further Reading
    (pp. 211-218)
  11. Index
    (pp. 219-222)