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QA:‘Magnificent Moment’ for Genome Author

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Even as it was providing scientists with a slew of data, the human genome was giving Matt Ridley fodder for his nonfiction book, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Released in October of last year, Genome climbed the New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for this year’s L.A. Times book prize. Ridley, a former editor with The Economist, lives in England with his wife and two children. GT’s Meredith Salisbury caught up with the author via e-mail to see what the fuss is all about.

Most science-based nonfiction books rarely see the light of day, let alone climb the ranks of the bestseller list. What makes Genome different, and why are people captivated by the subject — particularly when studies show that just 30 percent of the public has ever heard of the human genome project?

Ridley: Genome was lucky. The human genome project was accelerated while I was writing the book because of the competition with Celera. Consequently, my book had just come out when the first draft of the genome was announced, and the word “genome” was in the air. I also think the structure of my book — short chapters, each based on a different chromosome — made the subject more approachable for lay readers. It was deliberately intended to be a bit like a collection of short stories, a new structure for a science book.

From your speaking circuit travels, what can you tell us about what most interests people?

Ridley: In the UK and the US, most people are interested in the ethical questions — how will we apply this knowledge? There is a noticeable difference between European and American audiences. Europeans are dominated by fear and pessimism that the knowledge will lead to bad outcomes — inequality of healthcare, germ warfare, environmental mistakes. Americans are more likely to see the positive possibilities — for diagnosis, cure, and prevention of disease. But many audiences are fascinated by the philosophical possibilities of this knowledge — things like understanding the origin of life, or the mystery of free will.

Is there anything noteworthy that you chose to leave out of the book?

Ridley: I left out many, many things. My structure enabled me to omit things because they were not on the appropriate chromosomes — this caused many difficulties in making the book a coherent whole. I regretted having to omit the HLA genes on chromosome 6, and the clock genes that enable the organism to keep to a circadian rhythm.

What do you think of general media coverage of genomics?

Ridley:It’s not bad. I think the coverage has been fair. But I have a few quibbles. One is the overuse of the word “blueprint,” a terrible metaphor for the genome. Another is that the media is obsessed by the application of genetics, rather than the genes themselves. I wish there were more discussions of the origin of life and fewer of the future of the insurance industry.

You call this the ‘greatest intellectual moment in history.’ Why?

Ridley:The first time in four billion years that a species has read its own recipe is surely a magnificent moment. How lucky to be alive at that very time!

Will there be a Proteome?

Ridley:Yes, in some form. But it will not be a simple digital document like the genome. It will have to have three-dimensional information. More like a catalogue, less like a book. Besides, if current guesses are right, there might be tens or even hundreds of protein products from a single gene. Many will be only minutely different from each other and cataloguing them all might be a waste of time.

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