Reviews for Epigenetics : The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance

Book News Reviews
A writer with a PhD in neurobiology explains why "identical" twins can have different risks for health problems, how the effects of famine can be inherited across generations, and the dynamics of the breeding of hybrid animals. Francis presents an interesting, accessible introduction to epigenetics, a new field that studies how the environment (prenatal, social, and chemical stressors) can have long-term physiological and behavioral effects through regulating genes. He explains how this process offers promise for understanding development and obesity, and treating cancer. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Booklist Reviews 2011 June #1
The primordial tug-of-war between nature and nurture is a concept almost every educated person is familiar with nowadays: some traits, like skin color, are inherited, while depending on who's raising us, our environment can steer us toward either violent crime or beneficent altruism. Yet the observation that nurture can tweak our supposedly hardwired DNA and influence its expression in everyday life, as when a famine survivor's child inherits the urge to overeat, is a relatively recent and surprising discovery in a new biological discipline dubbed epigenetics. Francis, whose previous book, Why Men Won't Ask for Directions (2005), won raves for its witty critique of sociobiology, is the perfect author for dissecting this intimidating topic for lay audiences. Aside from an introductory chapter on genetics, needed to understand everything that follows, the information presented here is filled with fascinating--and startling--real-world examples of outside impacts on genes, ranging from steroid usage to fried chicken to novel cancer treatments. A first-rate, genuinely enjoyable introduction to one of science's hottest new fields. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

Choice Reviews 2011 November
Epigenetics is broadly defined as the regulation of genetic expression not directly related to the base sequence in DNA itself. Several mechanisms may be involved, most notably the methylation or attachment of methyl groups to DNA or proteins (histones) associated with DNA. Changes in these patterns on chromosomes passed by the respective parents during fertilization account for variations in genetic patterns or diseases in the offspring. Francis (Why Men Won't Ask for Directions, CH, Jul'04, 41-6841), trained in neurobiology, provides an absorbing account of the subject, using real-life examples to illustrate. The book begins with stories of the effects of starvation in the Netherlands during the last year of WW II; long-term effects showed an increased prevalence of obesity among children of mothers who experienced famine during the latter part of the pregnancy. The author proceeds to describe environmental effects on epigenetic changes that resulted from the famine. Much of the book describes phenotypic changes in animals, including humans, and plants, which result from altered extrachromosomal patterns, and the effects on gene regulation. The audience is primarily the lay public, though a basic scientific knowledge of genetics is helpful. Extensive bibliography. Summing Up: Recommended. All undergraduate students and general readers. Copyright 2011 American Library Association.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 April #1

Science writer Francis (Why Men Won't Ask for Directions, 2003) sets out to dethrone the notion that genes are the "directors" of the "plays" that are our lives, orchestrating our development and determining our risk for disease and sundry physical and behavioral traits.

Yes, genes are important, writes the author, but they are subject to regulation by forces that can turn them on or off, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes across generations. These forces can come via the cell housing of the genes, other parts of the body or the environment, in each instance initiating the actions of chemicals that bind (or unbind) one or more parts of a gene, preventing (or activating) its transcription. This is an "epigenetic" process—epigenetics is the science that studies the ways in which DNA can undergo long-term regulatory changes that do not involve mutations of the genes themselves. To illustrate, Francis provides a dizzying array of examples, which can be distracting. Do we really need the entire plot of The Deer Hunter to explain how each character's presumed early-life stress determines reactions to combat? The point is that stress, particularly chronic stress in utero, can reset an individual's stress barometer to ultrasensitivity, with unhealthy long-term consequences. Other early-life examples include the effects of maternal malnutrition and the bizarre consequences, including shrunken testicles, resulting from long-term anabolic steroid use. But it's not only hormones that affect gene regulation. Epigenetic processes can occur randomly and sometimes be reversed. There is also the phenomenon of imprinting, by which offspring can vary dramatically depending on whether the genes activated derive from the father or the mother. Emerging cancer studies also indicate that epigenetic events may spur progression as well as spontaneous remissions.

In his zeal, Francis provides a primer of a new science that will please some readers; others may want—and can expect—more in-depth accounts to come.


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