Everyone has heard of the story of DNA as the story of Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin, but knowing the structure of DNA was only a part of a greater struggle to understand life's secrets. Life's Greatest Secret is the story of the discovery and cracking of the genetic code, the thing that ultimately enables a spiraling molecule to give rise to the life that exists all around us. This great scientific breakthrough has had farreaching consequences for how we understand ourselves and our place in the natural world, and for how we might take control of our (and life's) future.
Life's Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters-mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists-who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or "junk DNA" was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobb's telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone who'd like to explore those questions for themselves.
English biochemist Lane, whose previous book, Life Ascending, won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, combines elegant prose and an enthusiasm for big questions as he attempts to peer into a "black hole at the heart of biology." Scientists "have no idea why cells work the way they do," nor "how the parts evolved," though as Lane points out, eukaryotic cells the building blocks of all multicellular life share multiple complex structural and functional features. With impeccable logic and current research data, he makes a case for a common ancestor of all multicellular life one created by a singular endosymbiotic event between a bacterial cell and an archaon cell that became the cell-powering mitochondrion. Lane walks readers through the details of how bacteria alone could have become metabolically diverse but not structurally complex. He then shows how the addition of mitochondria to the equation allowed a shift in energy flow through the cell, and how the migration of DNA introns from mitochondria DNA to the cell nucleus provided a wealth of new genetic material on which evolution could operate. The science is both a puzzle and a dance; Lane retains a sense of wonder as he embraces a bold hypothesis and delights in the hard data that gives it weight. Cobb (Eleven Days in August), a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester (U.K.), simply and comprehensively explains the history and basics of modern genetics. In the first half of his book, Cobb explores the personalities and the experiments that led to the discovery of the genetic code and how it works. He offers insight into the nature of science, how hypotheses are created and tested, and the collaborations and antagonisms that are common among scientists. Cobb follows breakthroughs up through the 1966 Cold Spring Harbor symposium, which "was entirely devoted to the genetic code." In the second part of the book, he covers the story from 1967 to the present, discussing how much more scientists have learned about the intricacies of DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Cobb touches on both pure and applied research, the complexities of epigenetics and gene regulation, possibilities arising from knowledge learned through the Human Genome Project, the use of DNA for computing and data storage, and prospects associated with synthetic biology. His optimism is well grounded and he offers appropriate cautions and calls for regulatory controls. Cobb covers well-plowed ground, but he does so in a manner both thoroughly engaging and truly edifying.