To my mother, there were two kinds of people: blood relatives and strangers. It's hard to imagine what she would have made of today's genetic testing, which shows, among other things, the complex and convoluted ways an African-American may be descended from a white Scot, and that all the many Cohens in the world may be related. She was related to far more people than she ever would have been willing to accept as family.
For the Danish science writer and trained neurobiologist Lone Frank, the journey into her genetic code began with an event that comes to all of us who do not die young: she became an orphan. If you have siblings, when your parents die you still feel surrounded by the demands of genetics. But Frank, then 43, is a childless only child and the moment left her cold, alone, and asking all the usual human existential questions. A generation earlier she might have turned to philosophy. Instead, in a pattern she believes is a developing trend that's fundamentally changing our society's approach to these questions, she headed for biology. And so, a year later, she began the search for herself as part of a research project studying the links between specific genes and depression.
That was only the beginning. In the course of researching My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, OneQuirk at a Time, the first-person tale of that physical and biological search, Frank peered into the connections between genes and brain function, psychology, behaviour and physiognomy. She journeys to Cold Spring Harbor, NY to interview 83-year-old James Watson, to Iceland to meet deCODEme's founder and CEO, Kári Stefánsson, and Richmond, Virginia to meet epidemiologist Kenneth Kendler, among others. Each encounter gives her new insights into the possibilities of personal genomics.
But each interviewee also teaches her the limits to genetic determinism. How our genes determine ourselves is not so simple; nor is understanding the interplay between them and our environment. But she learns this and finds it comforting: while her parents were giving her the genes for depression, they were also giving her the warmly connected childhood to combat it. It isn't so easy to blame our genes for everything that's wrong with us: they are malleable. 'Nobody's perfect' is exactly right.
Many of the issues Frank examines have been predicted — in Tom Wilkie's 1994 book Perilous Knowledge, written as the Human Genome Project was just getting underway, for example. But Frank is writing from experience; they are no longer theoretical. The movie Gattaca beckons as she discusses the level of genetic flaws we will accept in an unborn child with Imperial College evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi (with whom she appeared recently at the Dana Centre.
My Beautiful Genome is the best kind of science book: Frank's personal interest in her subject, her self-deprecating humour and her ability to explain complex concepts clearly make it compelling. In the end, like the folk songwriter Si Kahn, she concludes that it isn't what you're born with — it's what you do with what you've got.
My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, OneQuirk at a Time By Lone Frank One World Publications 314pp ISBN: 978-1-85168-833-3 £10.99