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Book review: Making Sense of Genes

26 March 2018
Appeared in BioNews 943

We live in the post-genomic era, whose start was marked by the completion of the  sequencing of the human genome. But when the Human Genome Project came to an end in 2001, the scientific community faced an unexpected challenge: decoding the sequence of human DNA did not translate into understanding how it works. Recently, novel sequencing technologies have been developed that allow large-scale studies of genes. Often, thousands of genes are simultaneously analysed, their functions investigated and their relationships elucidated. 

Despite these advances, there are a surprising number of myths and misconceptions surrounding what genes are and what they do. Kostas Kampourakis, a researcher in science education at the University of Geneva and editor-in-chief of the journal Science & Education, aims to clear aside this misinformation in his book Making Sense of Genes. 

Kampourakis begins with a thorough analysis of how the concept of the gene has evolved from the 19th century to our times. Originally, genes were understood to be immaterial factors that were useful conceptual tools in research. Over time, his heuristic concept of the gene has evolved alongside the molecular concept of the gene. Both have been used extensively by scientists, but they have never converged completely, Kampourakis argues. 

Understanding exactly what a gene is and does is complicated further by the ways they have been discussed in public discourse. The complexity of the biological mechanisms involved in the regulation of genes has often forced scientists to use a range of metaphors. Oversimplified explanations have created inaccurate perceptions of how genes operate. The general impression is that there is a 'gene for' almost everything and that genes determine what we are, for better and for worse.

As a scientist, I strongly support Kampourakis' view. Experts have a professional and social obligation to communicate their research clearly and be explicit about its applications and limitations. Unfortunately, public engagement activities are not always supported in the academic environment. Consequently, most researchers lack the necessary communication skills to effectively reach out the non-expert public.

From Mendel's peas to the Human Genome Project, this book is filled with practical examples that make even the most intricate scientific information accessible and clear. Some might be surprised to find out that genes do nothing on their own and they are just one of the layers of complexity that determine what we are. The author guides the reader to understand that we are the result of the concerted actions of genes and external influences.

In this context, the book is a must-read for educators, journalists, academics and anyone who wants to approach genetics in a systematic way. The author warns the reader of the potential pitfalls stemming from the 'gene for' discoveries we can find in mass media headlines, TV series and sometimes also in authoritative sources such as journals. He gives the audience all the tools necessary to correct the mismatch between popular myth and a real understanding of genetics, in a highly informative and provocative way.

Kampourakis combines scientific rigour with philosophical reflection to accomplish the book's mission. He shifts the focus away from the deterministic concept of what genes are and do, and compels his audience to ask: 'How are genes implicated in the development of characters and diseases?' This is the only legitimate question we should really be thinking about when we are trying to make sense of genes.
 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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