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A History of Mutation Shows How the Concept Has Changed Science


The word "mutation" means something different to a comic book enthusiast than it does to a genetic researcher. But even as it pertains to science, the idea of mutation has meant different things over time, changing greatly from how Darwin perceived it to how it is used in the context of the genome.

It is this evolution of the concept of mutation that drives Elof Axel Carlson's new book, Mutation: The History of an Idea from Darwin to Genomics. Carlson, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says most geneticists today conceptualize 'mutation' as a change in an individual gene — an idea that dates back to the work of Nobel laureate Hermann Joseph Muller in the 1920s. But that is not how it always was. The term mutation itself has mutated and evolved to suit what researchers have learned since the time of Darwin.

Beginning with Darwin and pre-Mendelian ideas of what mutation was, continuing through the Mendelian aspects, work done by Thomas Hunt Morgan with fruit flies, and continuing through to the ideas of mutagenesis, biochemical approaches to the study of mutation, and mutation in relation to evolution, Carlson admirably straddles the very fine line between losing the reader in overly detailed explanations or by being so vague as to say nothing at all.

The book is a quick read. It doesn't seek so much to re-educate readers on what mutation is, as it does construct a timeline of how scientists have perceived it through the past couple of centuries. "The idea of mutation is rooted in our awareness of change over time," Carlson writes in his preface. "In the life sciences, consideration of change is essential to evolutionary biology and also, perhaps less obviously, to the study of genetics. … Many scientists tend to be unaware of how their colleagues of many generations ago conceived their field. Examination of this process … has the added benefit of informing us about the way ideas help or hinder the development of a field of science." Carlson's book presents a history of the concept of mutation, but also a history of how science itself has changed because of that word's evolution.

The author also seeks to make the reader aware that, though the definition of the word or the concept of mutation may have changed over time, these changes are the result of "accumulation of incremental knowledge based on new techniques and experiments," and that in the "SNPs of the introns and exons of today's genes, there are still echoes of Darwin's fluctuating variations." In seeking to lend a sense of history to a word that is used often in today's science, Carlson succeeds.

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