Monday, March 31, 2014

Inheritance by Sharon Moalem ****

Lamarck was right! Non-mendelian inheritance exists!

Inheritance by Sharon Moalem is three books in one: 1) A memoir of a medical geneticist specializing in rare diseases, 2) An infomercial for genetic testing, and, finally, 3) A resurrection of Lamarck and Lysenko.

Most of the book is a fascinating retelling of the author's case histories of rare genetic disorders. One of my favorites was HFI - hereditary fructose intolerance. People with this genetic disorder must avoid fruit. The list goes on and on recounting disorders that effect nutrition, sexuality, longevity, intelligence, ... well everything.

Some of the disorders are one in a billion, while other are only one in a hundred thousand. All the histories follow similar patterns. The doctors are baffled as to cause or cure, until someone figures out that the cause is genetic, when a cure becomes possible, and there are often benefits for the general population as well. However, with all these genetic disorders being discovered, the underlying message seems to be that almost any unknown medical problem rates genetic testing. This is the infomercial aspect.

Finally Lamarck. Lamarck suggested that the parent's environment/behavior could effect the parents in ways that would be inherited by their children, children's children, etc. The straw-man example tends to be that as giraffes stretch their necks, each, successive generations will have longer necks. The science of epigenetics posits a mechanism for this to occur, though in the language of Mythbusters, I think Lamarck has move from Busted to Plausible. Confirmed still seems to be a little ways off.

For the case histories alone, this is a fascinating read, along with be a persuasive reminder of both the power and limitations of genetics. The most important limitation that there is much involved in the expression of the genes. Even is two people have identical gene, their patterns of gene expression can be very different ... gene represent potential not destiny.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on March 15, 2014. I received the book ob March 25, 2014.

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