Tamed by Alice Roberts review – 10 species that changed our world

How dogs, horses, cattle, apples, rice and other species were domesticated proves an excellent perspective on deep human history

There is a revolution going on in history – big, broad-sweep history that attempts to tell the story of the long march of humanity. As Alice Roberts’s book exemplifies, we now have a multitude of paths into the deep past: “geography, archaeology, history and genetics”, of which for her the most important is genetics. Genomes contain a record of everything that has happened to DNA since life began – yes, it has been overwritten countless times, but key events remain preserved in genomic amber. “Pots are not people,” the archaeologists’ adage goes, which means that a single source of evidence can be misleading, but when there is mutually reinforcing evidence from two, three or more modes of inquiry, it’s possible to achieve a high degree of consensus.

Two recent pioneers of the history ...

A Crack in Creation review – Jennifer Doudna, Crispr and a great scientific breakthrough

This is an invaluable account, by Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, of their role in the revolution that is genome editing
It began with the kind of research the Trump administration wants to unfund: fiddling about with tiny obscure creatures. And there had been US Republican hostility to science before Trump, of course, when Sarah Palin objected to federal funding of fruit fly research (“Fruit flies – I kid you not,” she said). The fruit fly has been a vital workhorse of genetics for 100 years. Jennifer Doudna’s work began with organisms even further out on the Palin scale: bacteriophages, tiny viruses that prey on bacteria. Yoghurt manufacturers knew they were important, not least because bacteriophages can destroy yoghurt cultures. Research on the mechanism of this process began in the labs of Danisco (now part of the giant DuPont) in the early 2000s, before spreading through the university biotech labs. ...

A Crack in Creation review – Jennifer Doudna, Crispr and a great scientific breakthrough

This is an invaluable account, by Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, of their role in the revolution that is genome editing
It began with the kind of research the Trump administration wants to unfund: fiddling about with tiny obscure creatures. And there had been US Republican hostility to science before Trump, of course, when Sarah Palin objected to federal funding of fruit fly research (“Fruit flies – I kid you not,” she said). The fruit fly has been a vital workhorse of genetics for 100 years. Jennifer Doudna’s work began with organisms even further out on the Palin scale: bacteriophages, tiny viruses that prey on bacteria. Yoghurt manufacturers knew they were important, not least because bacteriophages can destroy yoghurt cultures. Research on the mechanism of this process began in the labs of Danisco (now part of the giant DuPont) in the early 2000s, before spreading through the university biotech labs. ...

The Serengeti Rules by Sean B Carroll review – a visionary book about how life works

Carroll argues that life, from genes to ecosystems, is regulated top-down by predators – a powerful idea that can help us devise cures for disease and regenerate natural habitats

As diagnosed by Thomas Kuhn in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), science proceeds by way of a rare shaking of the pieces into a new coherent explanatory pattern followed by a descent into increasing complexity before the next moment of clarity emerges. Watson and Crick’s DNA structure of 1953 and the genetic code of 1968 were almost indecently clear and simple for a biology that often seems to consist only of exceptions to any rule you care to formulate. It is now 15 years since the human genome sequence was announced, to huge fanfare, but the simple hopes of that time for an immediate avalanche of universal medical benefits have not yet been realised. Anyone reading the latest papers on genomics in the magazines ...

Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb – review

We know about Crick, Watson and the double helix. But how did scientists solve the other great mystery of our existence?

It is a surprise that the story of “life’s greatest secret” is only now being fully told nearly 50 years after the genetic code was cracked. While DNA’s double helix and the names James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin are legendary, how many people have heard of Marshall Nirenberg, Severo Ochoa and Har Gobind Khorana? These were the men who, following the discovery of the double helix in 1953, were largely responsible for working out the code – the set of rules by which the information within DNA controls the assembly and regulation of all the proteins in living cells.

Crick himself was the first to recognise that the bases along the double helix act to select from the 20 natural amino acids and to marshal them into ...