Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review: It takes a genome

Disclosure: this was a free Kindle book a few days ago

It Takes a Genome has a very simple thesis: the conventional view of our genes as being responsible for various diseases such as cancer and diabetes should be viewed as symptomatic of another problem --- that as human beings we are operating way outside the environment in which our genes evolved, which is what makes such diseases common and gives the appearance of an epidemic.

To this end, Greg Gibson examines several diseases, breast cancer, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer's, and AIDs (the last is not a genetic disease, but he discusses how differently various peoples react to the disease, and how a small percentage of people seem to have immunity to AIDs). He debunks several myths about these diseases, including the "thrifty genes" hypothesis for accumulating weight and therefore getting diabetes. The discussion is non-technical, though Gibson does supply the names of the relevant genomes and genes for the layman. Very realistically, he points out how even in many extreme cases, having the relevant gene or genome only increases the likelihood of a certain disease by a few percentage point, with the rest attributed to other environmental factors. He emphasizes also how early we are in the current stage of investigation: there is so much complex interaction that being able to isolate a gene as a cause of a genetic disease can only happen in the most extreme cases. One thing that does come through in this book is how thoroughly focused on white people current genetic research is. There seem to be many results that only applies to Caucasians because that's all the studies that exist! (My perusal of my own 23AndMe genome report does show that this comes up a lot)

Ultimately, this short book makes its point clearly, and perhaps after this book you'll be a lot less excited about genetic services such as 23AndMe. I did notice when I signed up for the service how little actionable items I was able to extract from my own genome, so I've learned first hand how early we are in truly understanding what's going on out there.

While this book wasn't a waste of time to read, I would wait to check it out from the library rather than pay money for it. Mildly recommended.
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