Guide Jacobs Ladder: The History of the Human Genome

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Jacob's Ladder : The History of the Human Genome -

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Skip this list. Ratings and Book Reviews 0 0 star ratings 0 reviews. The latter strategy has proved enormously useful; new technologies enable genes to be inserted or deleted as required, so that their effects on form can be studied. The genomes of flies, worms and fish have been randomly mutated using chemicals or radiation so as to generate bestiaries of bizarre mutants whose detailed mechanics can then be unravelled.


Such models are the source of the vast majority of what we currently know about the way animals — including humans — are made. It is true that a mouse or a worm is something short of human, but modern genetics has taught us that all living things share fundamental generative processes and principles. Indeed, some of the genes that control human development work equally well when transplanted into other species. This conservation of generative principles between widely different species reflects their shared evolutionary history; evolution works by tinkering with pre-existing genetic programs.

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Gene sequencing initiatives have shown, much to our surprise, that humans have almost exactly the same number of genes as organisms of broadly similar structural complexity, such as mice and monkeys. As the genome project expands, making it possible to compare the human genome with those of distantly related organisms, it becomes easier to assess the extent to which mice, worms, fish and flies provide models for understanding what goes on in humans. It turns out that a little circumspection is needed. A recent study of the coral species Acropora millepora , for example, identified large swathes of genes shared by coral and humans which were not found in common model organisms such as the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster or the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans , even though flies and worms evolved millions of years later than coral.

Such findings, which were quite unexpected, suggest that at least some of the genes thought to be the evolutionary innovations of vertebrates have more ancient origins. Animals may in some instances discard genes as they become more complex. It would appear that in order to gain a true understanding of the genetic make-up of human beings, we will need to study a far greater range of organisms.

Leroi, however, believes that if we are to understand human beings, we should pay more attention to human variation than to what other organisms can tell us. He illustrates his thesis with accounts of conjoined twins, developmental disorders of eyes, faces, fingers and limbs, skeletal abnormalities, giants, midgets, dwarfs, albinos, abnormalities of sexuality and excessive hair growth. Each deviation is supplied with a specific historic example. Leroi, in characteristic fashion, follows this story with a discussion of the molecular genetic mechanisms thought to underlie such abnormalities.

Tellingly, though, as is almost always the case, these were elucidated in animals — in this instance newts and mice — rather than in humans. Great efforts have been made to document human genetic diversity, in particular that of indigenous populations, in order to identify the SNPs single nucleotide polymorphisms that underlie many of the common differences between individuals. Size: KB.

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