Category Archives: Genetics

Epigenetics, the misunderstood science

A little over a decade ago, a clutch of scientific studies was published that seemed to show that survivors of atrocities or disasters such as the Holocaust and the Dutch famine of 1944-45 had passed on the biological scars of those traumatic experiences to their children.

The studies caused a sensation, earning their own BBC Horizon documentary and the cover of Time (I also wrote about them, for New Scientist) – and no wonder. The mind-blowing implications were that DNA wasn’t the only mode of biological inheritance, and that traits acquired by a person in their lifetime could be heritable. Since we receive our full complement of genes at conception and it remains essentially unchanged until our death, this information was thought to be transmitted via chemical tags on genes called “epigenetic marks” that dial those genes’ output up or down. The phenomenon, known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, caught the public imagination, in part because it seemed to release us from the tyranny of DNA. Genetic determinism was dead…

DNA methylation

This article first appeared in The Observer on 10 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson – review

ONE of the most striking passages in Walter Isaacson’s new book comes towards the end. It is 2019 and a scientific meeting is under way at the famous Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in New York State, but James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is banned from it because of the racist and scientifically unfounded views he has expressed on intelligence. Isaacson, who is to interview Watson, therefore has to make his way to the house on the nearby campus that the scientist has been allowed to keep. When the conversation sails dangerously close to the race issue, someone shouts from the kitchen: “If you are going to let him say these things, then I am going to have to ask you to leave.” The 91-year-old Watson shrugs and changes tack…

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 11 March 2021. To continue reading, click here.

What can we learn from Africa’s experience of Covid?

AS Africa emerges from its second wave of Covid-19, one thing is clear: having officially clocked up more than 3.8m cases and more than 100,000 deaths, it hasn’t been spared. But the death toll is still lower than experts predicted when the first cases were reported in Egypt just over a year ago. The relative youth of African populations compared with those in the global north – while a major contributing factor – may not entirely explain the discrepancy. So what is really going on in Africa, and what does that continent’s experience of Covid-19 teach us about the disease and ourselves…?

This article first appeared in The Observer on 28 February 2021. To continue reading, click here.

 

The first urbanites

AROUND 6200 years ago, farmers living on the eastern fringes of Europe, in what is now Ukraine, did something inexplicable. They left their neolithic villages and moved into a sparsely inhabited area of forest and steppe. There, in an area roughly the size of Belgium between the modern cities of Kiev and Odessa, they congregated at new settlements up to 20 times the size of their old ones…

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 27 February 2021. To continue reading, click here (paywall).