Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Review: Genes in Conflict

I've got a piece (registration required) in the current London Review of Books on Genes in Conflict by Austin Burt and Robert Trivers.

The book's a brilliant resource, bringing together what must be pretty much every piece of information on selfish genetic elements, such as transposable elements, selfish sex chromosomes and imprinted genes. These genes can thrive at the expense of the organisms that carry them, causing conflict and selection to operate within genomes and organisms, as well as between them.

Such conflict has led to some extremely odd biology (such as the sperm that can eject the maternal chromosomes from the eggs they 'fertilize'), some extremely fundamental aspects of our biology (such as the uniparental inheritance of mitochondria, and probably some details of mitosis and sex itself), and some extremely interesting potential effects on our behaviour and psychology, caused by different bits of the genome pulling in different directions. I imagine this will be explored further in Trivers' next book, which is apparently going to be about the evolution and uses of self-deception.

This is the sort of book that would work splendidly as an online resource — it doesn't take a linear approach (early on the authors say it can be read in any order, which is a bit dispiriting for a reviewer settling down to read the whole thing), so hyperlinking would be valuable. And this is such a fast-moving field that regular updates would be welcome (such as, say, the power of transposable elements as a creative force in evolution, which is a bit off-message from the book's main thrust, but an exciting area, as a recent N&V feature (registration required) in Nature shows). Magisterial overviews such as this still clearly have a place on academic bookshelves, but they need to cope with the way that the internet has made the information they collate easier to find and access.

4 comments:

postblogger said...

Woah! Sperm that eject the maternal chromosomes? What's that in?

But I take your point about large reviews/books needing to think about updating. I was stuck in the British library a couple of weeks ago and was reading a review written in 1950, which cited plenty of papers written 30 or 40 years previously. That's not something you see that much anymore...

oliveoyl said...

Incidentally I received a personal copy of the book today as a gift from one of the authors, a memorable treasure surely!!!

John Whitfield said...

Maternal genome loss (I am taking this from the book) is seen in...

The 'very rare' conifer Cupressus dupreziana, 'confined to a section of desert in Algeria'.

Several species of the freshwater clam Corbicula

and the stick insect Bacillus rossius-grandii.

Anonymous said...

I read John's 30 Nov. 2006 review in my copy of the Londown Review of Books and was about to pop off a letter to the editors, but yo, the web is quicker and more gratifiying. Years ago I read Evelyn Fox Keller's book on Barbara McClintock's proof of transposable genes. Humans are not exactly Indian corn. What's obvious among two-gendered sexual systems is that the female line holds and that males on their own have no blood line. What are men for? To transfer the gene packet they receive from their mothers to fecund females down the line, thus complexifying (and in my book geometrifying space-time as well as numerical reality).