TEARS OF THE CHEETAH: And Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier

Stephen O'Brien, Author
Stephen O'Brien, Author . St. Martin's $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-312-27286-9
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The 14 firsthand evolutionary yarns collected here are the equivalent of genomic Aesop's fables. By turns passionate, understated, unexpectedly literate and historically astute, O'Brien, head of the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, is a breath of fresh air: he's written a genetics book that neither probes the ambiguous legacy of genetic engineering nor seeks to entice us with yet another last-word account of the race to map the human genome—and judiciously dispensing with jargon wherever possible, O'Brien's a smooth read as well. The author does not tell us the genetic fable of how the leopard got its spots, but he comes close. The title story recounts his research team's startling discovery of near-complete genetic uniformity among cheetahs, derived possibly from a brush with extinction that forced inbreeding. O'Brien enters a century-old debate on the taxonomy of the endangered panda, whether it belongs to the bear or the raccoon family: a little molecular-genetic detective work revealed it to be either, depending on the species (there is actually more than one). He reads and learns from the genetic histories of the humpback whale and other exotic species. An underlying theme of the book is how these parables illuminate human medicine—how, for example, insights into cat immunodeficiency could lead to a cure for AIDS; another could be said to be self-congratulation for his articles in Nature, his textbook citations and press clippings. But this is only a minor irritation. O'Brien is an explorer of the first order, intrepid and curious. His accomplishments, including this modest book, are considerable. (Sept.)

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