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Book Review: How to Code a Human

18 September 2017
Appeared in BioNews 918

How to Code a Human

By Dr Kat Arney

Published by Carlton Publishing

ISBN-10: 023300517X, ISBN-13: 978-0233005171

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Genomics may herald a bright future - for those who understand it. But what about those who do not?

'Generation Genome', the UK Chief Medical Officer's annual report released in July (see BioNews 911), depicts a future in which diseases are screened for, prevented and cured by highly tailored personalised medicine, all stemming from an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the human genome and the way in which it interacts with disease.

But what will the average patient or layperson on the street do when their GP starts discussing alleles, genome mapping and predictive genetics? How will members of the public, who may have left school decades ago, keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of genetic research which will likely have a major impact on their healthcare in the near future?

Dr Kat Arney's new book 'How to Code a Human' is a beautiful example of how complicated genetic topics can be simplified and clarified to make them understandable and enjoyable for the least-scientific of readers. While the book does not pitch itself as an introduction to genomic medicine, it does provide the basic building blocks of a good understanding of genetics, and the relevance of the concepts presented through its 17 chapters is consistently linked back to cutting-edge medical research.

Dr Arney takes the reader on a highly structured journey through genetics, beginning with the very basics of DNA and genes, and subsequently adding on layers of complexity with each chapter. The book meanders through topics including evolutionary biology, DNA damage and repair, genetic engineering and cellular molecular processes.

While some of the chapters are of a more technical nature than others, the language and style remains readable and friendly throughout. For example, in chapter three, Dr Arney manages in a truly engaging and memorable fashion to explain the importance of DNA sequences such as promoters, enhancers and smORFs (small open reading-frames) that regulate how DNA is read - a feat which many a biology textbook falls well short of. Crucially, some of the more obscure terms are defined within the text, and there is an easily navigable glossary at the back of the book. There seems to be a consistent focus on making the information as accessible as possible to the widest range of readers.

One of the techniques Dr Arney utilises most successfully throughout the book is the use of metaphors and comparisons. In the introduction, genes are compared to recipes. What elevates this metaphor from the banal to the sublime is that throughout the book it is extended and referenced, creating an instantly recognisable thematic thread which runs between the chapters. The book is replete with further creative uses of imagery: epigenetic marks are compared to sticky notes and highlighters, DNA sequences are compared to computer codes, and disease-resistant humans are dubbed 'genetic superheroes'.

Dr Arney also applies a liberal sprinkling of cute, if somewhat cringe-inducing, genetics puns and quips ('It's a Knockout', ' Pimp my Genome', 'Cycling Around'...) to serve as subsection titles and headings for little colourful boxes of extra information which break up the main text. These boxes contain stories of famous genetic discoveries, tangential yet fascinating additions to the main flow of the chapter ('Why don't elephants get cancer?'), and snapshots of the latest advances in genetic technology. The book is considerably enriched by these extra nuggets of information, which provide context, colour, and relevance to the scientific theory presented in the main text.

The main bulk of the text is also fragmented by a range of full-colour scientific diagrams to elucidate the more technical sections of the book, as well as an assortment of stock images. Many of these seem to serve as visual padding rather than important additions to the actual information in the book (look out for the full, double-page, glossy, colour stock image of an athlete sprinting). As a result, there are almost no pages of solid uninterrupted text. This can become frustrating for a more advanced reader, but certainly adds visual stimuli and interest grabbers for the casual or younger reader.

While any book which is written to simplify a complicated scientific topic will invariably have to sacrifice a certain element of nuance, Dr Arney manages to maintain a respect for the details she has decided not to include in the book. She is happy to include references to studies which have not yet produced conclusive results, for example the European COSMOS trial, which is mentioned in chapter four. This characteristic of Dr Arney's writing comes to the fore in the final few chapters of the book, when controversial topics such as genome editing, designer babies and human extinction are presented. The reader is provided the space to mull over the various competing opinions for themselves, while the author restrains herself from providing concrete conclusions at the end of each paragraph.

'How to Code a Human' is a prime example of slick science communication at its best. It is a beautifully written and artfully presented book which would be perfectly suited to a life sitting in a high school library, on a coffee table, or by the bedside of a curious reader. Perhaps more importantly though, this book represents the type of user-friendly scientific work which illuminates the world of genetics for a generation of people, for which a basic knowledge may play a crucial role in their healthcare decisions.

Buy How to Code a Human from Amazon UK.

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