Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Richard C. Francis' "Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance"

This is an exciting topic and I had high hopes for this book. The book does include some wonderful "attention grabbing" stories of some biological facts that don't fit the traditional genetics story. It did introduce me to several areas of research where epigenetics his giving new insight into biology. But I felt the author could have provided more detail on the science and more a "lay of the land" review. The specific examples were interesting but without more background it is hard to appreciate them in the overall context of epigenetics as a scientific theory.

My lament may not be a fault of the author. I notice than when I look through the Wikipedia article on epigenetics I find much detail but not a solid sense of an over-arching scientific theory. I see many mechanisms discussed, but I feel the glue is missing, the stuff that makes these mechanisms all part of a coherent scientific theory. Maybe I'm asking for too much. But it feels as if "physics" is introduced as statics, dynamics, kinematics, etc. An assortment of subfields grouped under "physics". But what is the rational for physics as a scientific field and how do these subfields fit together into a whole? Presumably the glue and the coherent overarching theory is "epigenesis" but Francis' book doesn't make me comfortable that I understand this theory. I'm left seeing the trees but not the forest.

The author goes to great pains to make clear that epigenetics isn't just a new development in genetics. He wants to emphasize that the "genetics" in epigenetics derives from "genesis" and not "genes". It is a story of developmental biology. I especially enjoyed the section where he discussed "preformationism" and "epigenesis". I found this an excellent motivation for understanding why epigenetics as a new science is so important. It provides the scientific mechanisms to support epigenesis.

I found the material on "genetic imprinting" murky. He did labour mightily to make it clear, but I think I'm a victim of terminology. The word "imprinting" kept throwing me for a loop. There was nothing to imprint with imprinting. And it certainly has nothing to do with ethology's "imprinting". It is simply a deplorable lack of imagination in coming up with a technical term that adequately captures the concept.

The chapter on cancer and epigenetics was exciting. I can see great hope in dealing with cancer by changing the paradigm from genetics and disease to inter-cellular communication and control over gene expression.

He makes it very clear that the traditional story of genes are the blueprint and proteins are the resulting organism is far too shallow a story. The book makes it clear that something quite exciting is happening with discoveries of how inter-cellular communication is controlling gene expression through epigenetics and that the story of epigenetics is quite complex. I just wish he has expanded the book to cover more of the story.

I was disappointed in the book because it was written with a whiff of dry academic style. He needs to put more effort into using words to paint pictures and build up a story that can carry the average reader along. I found myself having to refer to the index far too often to keep straight terminology. Only specialists want to learn the opaque terminology of modern science. I'm happy to be acquainted with the words, but I need something more descriptive to hang my hat on. I need more of "tell me what you are going to say, say it, and then tell me what you just said to me" storyline so that I can get comfortable with new concepts and get confidence that I understand them.

You can get a sense of the dryness of the text from the postscript where he is reviewing the "themes" that his book covered:
The first theme concerns the nature of epigenetic processes: a form of gene regulation. Epigenetic gene regulation is long-term gene regulation, hence epigenetic alterations have long-term effects on gene behavior. Indeed, epigenetic alterations of gene behavior can be longer lasting than mutational alterations of gene behavior, epigenetic alterations of gene behavior are generally reversible.
I can vouch that the book supports the factual truth of all of the above, but you can see how turgid the style can be. That's a lot of dense prose that will put most readers to sleep with too much repetition of fairly opaque terms. You have to be motivated to want to wade through that kind of writing to understand what the author is trying to tell you. Sure, from an insider's viewpoint, all of that is obvious. But from an outsider's view there is that deadly repetition of $100 words labouring a point that is hard to discern.

I do recommend this book. It is an important field. You will find some interesting examples of epigenetics and get an appreciation of how it works. But it will mostly leave you desperate for a better text to more properly introduce you to the field. Something that goes beyond examples and presents a well rounded theory with all the examples safely embedded into a structure that makes sense of the field.

No comments: