Thursday, 31 July 2008

A History of Molecular Biology – Michael Morange ***

Michel Morange’s efforts in the history of molecular biology come to life in his appropriately named book, The History of Molecular Biology. While we take for granted now that DNA is the genetic material, this conclusion stemmed from many experiments and this is where the book starts. We all know the progress made since then with things like cloning and DNA amplification (polymerase chain reaction). Michel Morange guides us on a historical trip through these developments and even takes a look into the future. The book is not organized in a traditional chronological order. Rather it is divided into themes such as “The chemical nature of the gene” or “Deciphering the genetic code”. Within each theme, however, the events are outlined in chronological order.
The strongest point of the book was to put the development of molecular biology into context. It provided an eye-opening view of the competition between various schools of thought and controversies about the discoveries. Its major weakness is the lack of biographical material about the individual scientists, who I am sure were interesting people in their own rights. Another weakness is that the book was originally written in French and was translated by Matthew Cobb. I found that the translation was incomplete in that some of the French sentence structure remained, surprising since Cobb himself seems to be a very good writer and the author of delightful The Egg and Sperm Race.
Overall this book was very interesting and fun to read. I recommend it thoroughly to those unfamiliar with molecular biology, although this type of reader may have to do some research to clarify some of the concepts. I even more strongly recommend it to people who are familiar with molecular biology but who have not kept up. The book provides an excellent review of the material with the addition of the competitive context of the times.
Paperback:  
Review by Stephen Goldberg

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