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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.2 (2004) 308-309

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The Misunderstood Gene. By Michele Morange. Translated by Matthew Cobb. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001. Pp. ix + 222. $24.95.

This book aims to put forward a new vision of genes and their function based on the results of molecular biology, and especially to give readers a better understanding of genetic "knockout" experiments.The author, Michele Morange, claims that the concept of the gene held by the public and many scientists is completely outmoded, and he argues that we are obliged to change our view on the role of genes in complex processes.

The Misunderstood Gene is a counterpoint piece of writing. Some of the ideas put forward by Morange swim against the mainstream of science: if molecular biologists had to designate one category of macromolecules as being central for life, it would be proteins and their multiple functions, not DNA and genes. [End Page 308] Genes are important only because they contain enough information to enable the synthesis of these proteins at an appropriate time and place. Proteins carry out their functions only when they are integrated into the hierarchical structure of life—macromolecular complexes, organelles, cells, organs, and organism. All of these levels of organization are based on the properties of proteins.

A central theme of this book is that, since proteins perform the work and interact with the environment, they—and not the genes—should be at center stage. The author's arguments are stimulating, but if the success of a book is to be judged on whether it attained the author's goal, this book would be judged as unsuccessful. The attempt to put the protein on a pedestal provides important information but falls short in the end. Instead of integrating proteins with their creative genes, the author tries too hard to justify one over the other.That the gene cannot perform its function without protein is too obvious to a scientist—and to a significant segment of the educated lay public. Moreover, although the book is intended for a public audience, much of the writing will not be accessible to nonscientific readers.

The introductory chapters present the usual background information about genes and proteins, incorporate the concepts of Darwin's theory and of population genetics, and provide some interesting historical anecdotes. Chapter 5, "Knockout Surprises," misses its goal because it does not provide the necessary background to enable readers to appreciate knockouts—the process by which one gene is "knocked out" in an animal so that the protein made by that gene is eliminated. Similarly, a sophisticated discussion of several transcription factors and signaling proteins lacks perspective. However, Chapter 7, "Genes Controlling Life and Death," is informative, explanatory, and does help to educate the public with respect to cancer and AIDS. This is perhaps the most successful chapter in the book. In Chapter 8, "Genes Affecting Behavior," the author returns to the mainstream of scientific thought by discussing the predominant role of genes rather than proteins, and the arguments that multiple genes rather than single genes affect behavior are well developed. Chapter 9, "Whither Genetic Determinism?" puts forward the arguments against genes themselves being the determinants of such processes as development, aging, etc. This chapter provides a good oxford debate without the opposition. The final chapter, "Human Evolution and Eugenics," explores individual and interracial genetic differences, but unfortunately it skims the top and provides little substance beyond the ordinary.

In summary, the book stimulates through its counterpoint views, but it should have been written in language more appropriate for nonscientific readers.

Baylor College of Medicine
Permission to reprint a book review printed in this section may be obtained only from the reviewer.



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