Redesigning Life: How genome editing will transform the world by John Parrington (25 Aug 2016)
Since the birth of civilisation, human beings have manipulated other life-forms. We have selectively bred plants and animals for thousands of years to maximize agricultural production and cater to our tastes in pets. The observation of the creation of artificial animal and plant variants was a key stimulant for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The ability to directly engineer the genomes of organisms first became possible in the 1970s, when the gene for human insulin was introduced into bacteria to produce this protein for diabetics. At the same time, mice were modified to produce human growth hormone, and grew huge as a result. But these were only our first tottering steps into the possibilities of genetic engineering.
In the past few years, the pace of progress has accelerated enormously. We can now cut and paste genes using molecular scissors with astonishing ease, and the new technology of genome editing can be applied to practically any species of plants or animals. ‘Mutation chain reaction’ can be used to alter the genes of a population of pests, such as flies; as the modified creatures breed, the mutation is spread through the population, so that within a few generations the organism is almost completely altered. At the same time, scientists are also beginning to synthesize new organisms from scratch.
These new technologies hold much promise for improving lives. Genome editing has already been used clinically to treat AIDS patients, by genetically modifying their white blood cells to be resistant to HIV. In agriculture, genome editing could be used to engineer species with increased food output, and the ability to thrive in challenging climates. New bacterial forms may be used to generate energy. But these powerful new techniques also raise important ethical dilemmas and potential dangers, pressing issues that are already upon us given the speed of scientific developments. To what extent should parents be able to manipulate the genetics of their offspring – and would designer babies be limited to the rich? Can we effectively weigh up the risks from introducing synthetic lifeforms into complex ecosystems? John Parrington explains the nature and possibilities of these new scientific developments, which could usher in a brave, new world. We must rapidly come to understand its implications if we are to direct its huge potential to the good of humanity and the planet.
Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (21 Sep 2016)
We dare to imagine a time before the Big Bang, when the entire Universe was compressed into a space smaller than an atom. And now, as Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw show, we can do more than imagine: we can understand. Over the centuries, the human urge to discover has unlocked an incredible amount of knowledge. What it reveals to us is breathtaking.
Universal takes us on an epic journey of scientific exploration and, in doing so, reveals how we can all understand some of the most fundamental questions about our Earth, Sun, Solar System and the star-filled galaxies beyond. Some of these questions – How big is our solar system? How fast is space expanding? – can be answered from your back garden; the answers to others – How big is the Universe? What is it made of? – draw on the astonishing information now being gathered by teams of astronomers operating at the frontiers of the known universe.
At the heart of all these questions – from the earliest attempts to quantify gravity, to our efforts to understand what dark matter is and what really happened at the birth of our universe – is the scientific process. Science reveals a deeper beauty, connects us to each other, to our world, and to our Universe; and, by understanding the groundbreaking work of others, reaches out into the unknown. What’s more, as Universal shows us, if we dare to imagine, we can all do it.
Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction by Helen Pilcher (22 Sep 2016)
If you could bring back just one animal from the past, what would you choose? It can be anyone or anything from history, from the King of the Dinosaurs, T. rex, to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, and beyond.
De-extinction – the ability to bring extinct species back to life – is fast becoming reality. Around the globe, scientists are trying to de-extinct all manner of animals, including the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon and a bizarre species of flatulent frog. But de-extinction is more than just bringing back the dead. It’s a science that can be used to save species, shape evolution and sculpt the future of life on our planet.
In Bring Back the King, scientist and comedy writer Helen Pilcher goes on a quest to identify the perfect de-extinction candidate. Along the way, she asks if Elvis could be recreated from the DNA inside a pickled wart, investigates whether it’s possible to raise a pet dodo, and considers the odds of a 21st century Neanderthal turning heads on public transport.
Pondering the practicalities and the point of de-extinction, Bring Back the King is a witty and wry exploration of what is bound to become one of the hottest topics in conservation – if not in science as a whole – in the years to come. READ THIS BOOK – the King commands it.
Galactic Encounters: Our Majestic and Evolving Star-System, From the Big Bang to Time’s End by William Sheehan and Christopher J Conselice (14 Oct 2016)
Written by William Sheehan, a noted historian of astronomy, and Christopher J. Conselice, a professional astronomer specializing in galaxies in the early universe, this book tells the story of how astronomers have pieced together what is known about the vast and complicated systems of stars and dust known as galaxies.
The first galaxies appeared as violently disturbed exotic objects when the Universe was only a few 100 million years old. From that tortured beginning, they have evolved though processes of accretion, merging and star formation into the majestic spirals and massive ellipticals that dominate our local part of the Universe. This of course includes the Milky Way, to which the Sun and Solar System belong; it is our galactic home, and the only galaxy we will ever know from the inside. Sheehan and Conselice show how astronomers’ understanding has grown from the early catalogs of Charles Messier and William Herschel; developed through the pioneering efforts of astronomers like E.E. Barnard, V.M. Slipher, Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble and W.W. Morgan; and finally is reaching fruition in cutting-edge research with state-of-the-art instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope that can see back to nearly the beginning of the Universe. By combining archival research that reveals fascinating details about the personalities, rivalries and insights of the astronomers who created extragalactic astronomy with the latest data gleaned from a host of observations, the authors provide a view of galaxies – and their place in our understanding of the Universe – as they have never been seen before.
Therapeutic Revolutions: Pharmaceuticals and Social Change in the Twentieth Century, edited by Jeremy A Greene, Flurin Condrau and Elizabeth Siegel Watkins (26 Oct 2016)
When asked to compare the practice of medicine today to that of a hundred years ago, most people will respond with a story of therapeutic revolution: back then we had few effective remedies, now we have more (and more powerful) tools to fight disease, from antibiotics to psychotropics to steroids to anticancer agents. This collection challenges the historical accuracy of this revolutionary narrative and offers instead a more nuanced account of the process of therapeutic innovation and the relationships between the development of medicines and social change. These assembled histories and ethnographies span three continents and use the lived experiences of physicians and patients, consumers and providers, and marketers and regulators to reveal the tensions between universal claims of therapeutic knowledge and the actual ways they have been used and understood in specific sites, from postwar West Germany pharmacies to twenty-first century Nigerian street markets. By asking us to rethink a story we thought we knew, Therapeutic Revolutions offers invaluable insights to historians, anthropologists, and social scientists of medicine.