Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, winner of The Nobel Prize in Medicine, gives a concise and illustrative overview of genetics, evolution, and cellular processes as well as a discussing of current ethical issues in human biology.
Coming to Life is a remarkable journey through developmental biology that reveals miraculous processes in the microscopic world of cells. Through an accounting of groundbreaking discoveries, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard tells us many answers to historical and contemporary questions in science. For example, she brings us the newest knowledge about embryonic forms, explains the genetic mechanisms that influence adult development of all animals, and shares insights into the ethical standards society moist uphold in the face of new scientific discoveries.
As the author leads us from laboratory research to its applications in human beings, we also come to understand why children look like their parents, how an embryonic cell knows to become an eye rather than an eyelash, and other incredible influences hat result in variety in life. Complete with her own hand-drawn illustrations, Coming to Life gives a rare opportunity to understand a Nobel Prize-winner’s passion for science in concise, understandable language. 55 b/w illustrations.
About the Author(s)
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995 for her discoveries in genetic research that led to a greater understanding of human biology and the prevention of human birth defects. Recognized around the world as one of the premier authorities in science, Dr. Nüsslein-Volhard has served for more than two decades as Director of Molecular Biology at he renowned Max-Planck-Institute in Germany. Her international honors include those reserved for only the upper echelons in science. Among them are the Albert Lasker Award (1991) and the Leibniz-Prize (1986). She has long been an advocate for students, and in particular for woman, to enter into science careers.
From Egg to Us: An Elementary Look at the Biology of Development, July 17, 2006
I think that very few people ever wonder how an egg grows to be an adult. People don’t generally think about what tells one cell it’s going to be part of a head and another cell that it’s going to be part of a foot. Most of us have seen pictures of early fetuses, but how many wonder why the chick looks so much like the pig? For those who do wonder, this book is a very good place to start. (My 5-star rating is my estimate of the book’s value to beginners.)
The topic is not the development of organisms in general, but of animals — and only those animals (including us humans and most of the others that are important to us), who are called bilaterians because our bodies have left-right symmetry. We also have distinct anterior and posterior ends, with a mouth at one end and an anus at the other; and we have ventral and dorsal sides (front and back in us humans). In the very beginning of development, chemicals are produced in the right places to say, in effect, "This will be front.", "This will be rear.", and so on. All these chemicals do is to switch on genes that will begin to give shape to the embryo. This is the beginning of a process that goes from a single cell to a very rough shape through stepwise refinements to the final mature animal. This systematic development is what makes the subject interesting and accessible to us non-scientists.
Nusslein-Volhard tells the story at a rather elementary level. She covers only a few of the many developmental genes – so that the reader doesn’t have to memorize a lot of names – and she says little about molecular mechanisms. She also focuses on the formation of the embryo, with some discussion of the larval and fetal stages and little about adults. Since the same principles apply to the later stages as to the early ones, this allows her to explain how development works while the reader has only a modest amount to memorize.
There are introductory chapters on genes, mutations, and how genes lead to proteins. I don’t think that a person who has never seen this material before is ready for this book, but I think that many people who need it for review will be OK.
There are obvious implications for evolutionary theory, but that is the subject of evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") and is beyond the scope of this book. For readers interested in this topic, I recommend the books by Sean Carroll, which I have reviewed. (Click above on "See all my reviews"; there are 3 pages.) If you already know a bit about how proteins interact with the control regions of genes and want to go straight to the implications for evolution, you may wish to go directly to one of Carroll’s books. However, Nusslein-Volhard’s description of embryology is interesting in itself.
There is a final chapter on current developments, such as cloning and stem-cell research. My first reaction was that this chapter didn’t belong. However, the news articles I read on these topics show that a lot of people don’t know any of the science involved, and a beginner’s book on embryology is a good place to learn it.
In sum, this is a short book well-focused on developmental biology, especially embryology, and written for relative beginners. For such readers, who are interested in the subject, I highly recommend it.