Scientists working with embryonic stem cells or transgenic organisms are sometimes perceived as evil: modern-day Frankensteins meddling with the building blocks of life.
In his new book, The Geneticist Who Played Hoops With My DNA … and Other Masterminds From the Frontiers of Biotech, journalist and author David Ewing Duncan chats with some of the most prominent and powerful life scientists in the United States about the human motivations behind their God-like endeavors.
He finds them to have benevolent intentions –almost completely convincing us that their experiments won’t have unintended negative consequences.
Duncan’s book profiles seven scientists, including famously cantankerous DNA discoverer James Watson, Human Genome Project leader and born-again Christian Francis Collins and Harvard geneticist Doug Melton, who hopes to advance medical research one day by creating monkeys with human brains.
Duncan weaves lay-friendly science through the profiles, making the book fun to read whether you’re interested in science, ethics or philosophy, or simply curious about exceptional people.
(Feeling curious yourself? Duncan has agreed to answer your questions about biotech research and ethics by e-mail. Send your questions to [email protected] and they’ll pass them along to him, and publish his answers when he responds.)
In the book, Duncan plays basketball with Icelandic DNA hero Kari Stefansson (an episode that inspired the title), and sits with Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner in his La Jolla, California, apartment as he nurses a cold. He explores how Collins reconciles his fiercely competitive nature and faith in science with his faith in God. And despite many of the scientists’ clear disdain for journalists, Duncan holds his own as a non-scientist in his conversations with these masterminds.
Their quirky, sometimes cranky, but mostly charitable natures should allay the public’s fear of scientists tinkering with DNA and stem cells. Mistrust of scientists stems at least in part from ignorance, not necessarily of the science, but of the people performing the experiments. We don’t know them as men and women who have families, catch the flu and play hoops at lunch.
It’s partly the fault of science reporters, Duncan writes: “Journalists tend to write articles trying to explain the intricacies of proteomics, genetically modified organisms, ribonucleic acid, transgenic animals and therapeutic cloning — and the ins and outs of startups, initial public offerings and rolling markets.”
In The Geneticist Who Played Hoops, Duncan assigns each scientist a nickname from mythology. Melton, for example, is Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mortals against Zeus’ wishes. Melton’s passion for his studies — using embryonic stem cells to find a cure for Type 1 diabetes — is motivated by his two children who have been diagnosed with the disease. Melton talks about creating animals with human cells or organs — specifically monkeys with human brains — without flinching, the thought of which Duncan admits gives him the heebie-jeebies.
In the Greek myths, Prometheus never explains his forbidden gift of fire, but Duncan ventures a guess: “He had mortal children who were cold and tired of eating berries and gnawing on raw meat.”
By Kristen Philipkoski