A Biological Sciences Reading List by a Library-Haunting Student

Thanks to a compulsive library habit, a hideously long Goodreads to-read list and a habit of monitoring the literary press for new releases, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about popular bioscience books. Therefore when looking for reading lists to prepare for university interviews, I found the lists unsatisfactory. Many of those released by universities were clearly written over ten years ago and not updated, or were drawn up based on a well stocked university library, full of expensive and hard to find books. I’ve spent the past few years mainly falling in and out of books which I’ve found in libraries, in a rather haphazard way. At the end of this all, I thought I should put my experience to good use and compile a suggested, and very unofficial, reading list for anyone interest in studying Biology, maybe at Oxford or Cambridge, so you don’t have to stumble around like I did. These are the books which I have been using to prepare myself to start my degree in Biological Sciences at Oxford University, so I hope they will be of interest to others.

All the books listed are available in the Manchester Public Library system and/ or in my old school library, so it should be relatively easy to find these books in other public or school libraries.

Plant Sciences: as I call it, “The queen of biosciences”.

weeds mabey

  • Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature by Richard Mabey – Mabey is more of an old-fashioned general naturalist than the narrow specialists. He mixes knowledge of plants learned in the field, folklore and history with a modern ecological understanding to create wide-ranging and very engaging and enjoyable book on the plants some view as pests and others revere. When so much of biological education is very lab-based, Mabey’s books, I also recommend The Cabaret of Plants, encourage you to break out of the lab and try to work out what that thing growing out of the pavement is trying to do.

emerald planet

  • The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History by David Beerling – A book on the pre-history of the plant world we see all around us. It is so easy to see plants as the green background to the interesting bits of nature that run fast and growl, but this book helps you consider plants as ecological engineers, that have shaped the planet in profound and fundamental ways.

lab girl

  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – If pushed, I might say this is my favourite book, certainly my favourite memoir. It is an unusual book in that it is a memoir by someone who isn’t famous. Instead, the book lives and dies on the strength of its writing, which is outstanding. Jahren is a plant geochemist, and the book recounts her journey through academia as a rare woman and a person with bipolar disorder. It is about the drive to discover what it is like to be a plant and to unpick their history through analytical methods, and the very strong relationship she has with her collaborator, the eccentric Bill. Before I start to gush about how important it is, I will say I have written more on it here, now go and read it.

Mycology:

mushroom money

  • Mushroom by Richard P. Money – A broad and entertaining look at the obscure and arcane ways of fungi, and the people who love them, as well as their vital contributions to ensuring that we are not waist high in rotting matter and can enjoy bread and wine.

Science and Society:

saini-inferior

  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini – A balanced treatment of some of the historical and current research on sex differences, showing throughout that people tend to be more complicated than reductive, biased science can lead us to believe.

genes cells and brains

  • Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose – A more polemical book evaluating the claims of gene therapy, stem cell therapy and neuroscience to cure our ills and explain what we are, and refutes reductive explanations of ourselves. A book that shows the political underpinnings of scientific research and technologies.

delusions-of-gender-the-real-science-behind-sex-differences

  • Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – On “neurosexism”, the prejudice that the brains of females and males are fundamentally different in a way that makes the binary sexes behave in stereotypical ways, and how this view relates to the research being done today, as well as a critique of the limits of what neuroimaging can reveal. A witty and well argued book, I’ve written more about it here.

mismeasure of man

  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould – The Great Gould himself, this book is about how the study of intelligence has made intelligence into a thing that can be measured, whether skull size or IQ, without actually relating to what we would call intelligence in every day life, as well as conveniently making Western educated white men come out on top.

Evolutionary Biology:

Cuckoo

  • Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies – The brood parasite behaviour of the European cuckoo will come up on any course on evolutionary biology or animal behaviour, most of that research is the fruit of Nick Davies crouching in the Fens and doing his careful experiments to elucidate why the birds and doing what they are doing, year after year. It reads like a thriller, the reader is asked to both try to solve an evolutionary puzzle and to try and work out how they themselves might prove it. I’ve written more about this here.

what evolution is

  • What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr- A criminally underappreciated book. A clear and comprehensive look at the developments in evolutionary biology of the 20th century from the man who brought you allopatric speciation. In my opinion it should be treated on par with The Selfish Gene, especially as it deals with the matters of speciation and macroevolution that are largely missing from The Selfish Gene, which is more concerned with microevolution.

selfish gene

  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – Worth reading as it encapsulates the neo-Darwinian, some would say reductionist, consensus which held sway in much of Biology for the last forty years, though there is also plenty to disagree with if you see it that way. Read for the clarity of the arguments, and then get into arguments with people about it.

the-origin-of-species

  • The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin – It’s easy to overlook actually reading The Origin if you’ve read a lot of modern work referring back to Darwin and know that outlines of his arguments. But actually reading The Origin allows you to appreciate Darwin’s thought processes and careful construction of arguments in the context of the intellectual environment he existed in, where many of the pieces of evolutionary theory were in place, but no one had joined them up. It is also interesting to see where Darwin went wrong, or more accurately was vague about, such as molecular basis of heredity.

life-ascending-cover440

  • Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane –  A good book to dip into to fill in any gaps in your knowledge, it is both comprehensive and innovative, as is all of Lane’s writing. The ten “inventions” are: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, sex, movement (i.e. the cytoskeleton), sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. I also recommend Lane’s The Vital Question, which is a more wide-ranging look on research into the origins of life, which Lane is involved in.

Genetics and Genomics

crack in creation

  • A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. Fresh off the press, this book is about the major development in gene editing, the CRISPR/ Cas9 system from the researchers who lead the way. I’ve written more about it here. 

the gene

  • The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A sprawling history of genetics from the earliest days of Mendel through the molecular genetics era and the genetic modification revolution, charting the shift from explaining heredity to manipulating it. The section on epigenetics research is poorly explained, however, so I would recommend instead…

epigenetics revolution

  • The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey – An important corrective to vague, slightly mystical or unduly provocative talk about epigenetics, it sets out the field as a logical step from any basic knowledge of genetics, genes can’t all ‘talk’ at the same time, so gene expression must be regulated so that a skin cell is different from a neuron. It covers the range of epigenetic research from biomedical to plant science in a clear manner with useful diagrams.

History of Science:

stalin scientists

  • Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905- 1953 by Simon Ings – A History of Science in the last years of Imperial Russia and the first half of the USSR, with a focus on the fabled suppression of Western Mendelian-Morganist genetics and the glorification of the claims of the charlatan Lysenko. Also discusses the work of Pavlov, Vavilov (a hero of plant science) and the cyberneticists (whose world we live in).

von humboldt

  • The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf – von Humboldt is an overlooked figure, but pioneered the sort of broad ecological thinking which could link the flora on two mountain tops on either side of the Atlantic. Without him, Darwin likely would not have been able to connect his observation of nature to trace their underlying cause.

Palaeontology:

survivors

  • Survivors by Richard Fortey – About “living fossils”, and what they can tell us about the history of life. My favourite are the velvet worms, putative relatives of Hallucigenia.

wonderful life

  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould – More Gould. This is about the Burgess Shale anthropod fossils, which living in the middle of the Cambrian. Gould argues that the disparate forms in the assemblage represent “evolutionary dead ends”, though some more recently research suggests they are closely allied to modern forms. But more interestingly, Gould goes from this to suggest that the set of taxa we see in the world now as here largely due to chance. Replaying the tape of life would result in a very different world, we were not inevitable. Certainly thought provoking, contrast with Simon Conway Morris’ The Crucible of Creation.

fortey_trilobite

  • Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey – Fortey spent many years in an obscure corner of the Natural History Museum in London, examining some very old fossils and using them to reconstruct past worlds. Fortey is a witty and clear writer and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.

Taxonomy

variety of life

  • The Variety of Life: A Survey and Celebration of All the Creatures that Have Ever Lived by Colin Tudge – This book sorely needs a second edition, but the first from 2000 is an accessible introduction to taxonomy and cladistics in theory and in practice. You don’t have to read the whole thing (though it is very enjoyable to do so), but the initial sections on cladistics and Willi Hennig detail an important part of modern biology which gets very little popular discussion elsewhere.

Molecular Biology:

life on the edge

  • Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden – Though it sound sci-fi, quantum biology is simply the realization that quantum effects can influence the behaviour of biological molecules. An interesting, inter-disciplinary book.

Ecology:

feral-monbiot

  • Feral by Geroge Monbiot – On rewilding, the reintroduction of once-native animals to a region to try to restore some of the wildness we have robbed them of, such as returning wolves or lynx to certain remote forests of Britain.  The topic is still very controversial in conservation biology, and Monbiot draws on both conservation science and our connection to the wild world to support his position, therefore the book tends to polarise readers.

ocean-of-life

  • The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts – About human-caused ecological disruption in the oceans, and what we can do to make amends. It is a topic that many can overlook in favour of the rainforests, so will definitely fill in some gaps in most people’s knowledge.

Disease:

spillover

  • Spillover by David Quammen – I read this whilst reading a book about life in North Korea and they were equally terrifying. It deals the “spillover” events which tip a non-human animal disease into a human zoonotic epidemic, and suggests what the future could bring. Quammen makes the sometimes clinical world of epidemiology as compelling as a thriller.

the-emperor-of-all-maladies

  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Another one of Mukherjee’s epic histories of science, this one is on oncology and cancer research. US centric, but a thorough and well constructed narrative.

The Anthropocene:

the sixth extinction

  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert – On extinction in a world where human actions are coming to dominate the planet, Kolbert travels the world to explore how the ecological dynamics of the world are changing as the Anthropocene enters full swing.

the shock of the anthropocene

  • The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz – A critical look at the historical and environmental forces that got us into this mess, their overall message is that the Anthropocene was never inevitable, rather the environmental destruction we see was caused by choices made by those in power influenced by their ideological systems, and not due to individual human greed.

Systems Biology:

the music of life

  • The Music of Life by Bruce Noble – An antidote to The Selfish Gene, this book counter the claims of a reductionist biology with a look at the whole system, and how phenomena can emerge from all levels and feed back into the rest of the system, creating extraordinary biological complexity. An elegant and thought provoking book.
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Book Review: A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg

crack in creation

Shortly after I finished reading Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s book on the development of the CRISPR gene editing technology, CRISPR was leading the news headlines. Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his international team announced their successful and efficient correction of a mutant MYBPC3 gene which causes the condition hypertropic cardiomyopathy, the cause of many of the sudden heart attacks in young people, in non-viable human embryos.  Though it took some time for the news stories to use the word “CRISPR”, as it is not yet a household name, the news sparked many opinion pieces warning of  a slippery slop, down which we will be lead to “designer babies”. But these are the same arguments we have been having since the dawn of the recombinant DNA era in the 1970s, with little reconsideration in light of the actual facts of how the technology and the  human genome works. What I found lacking in these analyses was a thorough understanding of the actual scope and limits of CRISPR gene editing technology. Gladly, A Crack in Creation offers such a nuanced background straight from those deeply embedded in the science; Jennifer Doudna is one of the scientists leading the development of CRISPR gene editing and Samuel Sternberg started his career as Doudna’s doctoral student.

crispr front page
Media coverage of the latest CRISPR story, from Eric Topol’s twitter.

The acronym CRISPR stands for the cumbersome phrase  “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats”. This refers to clustered stretches of base pairs in the genome of bacteria which are the same backwards as they are forwards, with non-repetitive “spacers” between them. Bacteria don’t tend to have superfluous parts to their genome, so researchers before Doudna were prompted to investigate their function. The spacer sequences were found to be derived from viral DNA, and the CRISPR sequences were found to be associated with the Cas proteins, which can cut DNA. With this information, the mechanism was pieced together. When the bacterium is infected with a virus, the cell copies this DNA and inserts it between the palindromic repeats. This acts as a cellular “memory”, so that when the same strain of virus infects the cell, it can transcribe into RNA the “memorised” sequence and use the RNA fragments to guide the Cas9 protein to the viral DNA. Cas9 then cuts the DNA with the characteristic double-strand cut. This allows bacteria to have something like the mammalian innate immune system, but unlike the immune system, CRISPR “immunity” involves infection leading to changes in DNA. This opens up the potential for this system of DNA editing, honed by evolution, to be adapted for human ends.

Doudna and Sternberg place CRISPR in the context of previous gene editing technologies, such as TALENs and zinc finger nucleases, which acted in a similar way to the CRISPR system, and the long history of largely unsuccessful gene therapies. This gives the reader the proper context of gene editing as not a quantum leap but a progression from cruder technologies. CRISPR seems startling only because we are now drawing on nature’s more efficient solutions rather than the fumbling designs of the human hand.

Jennifer Doudna was at the forefront of CRISPR emergence from obscure microbial trick to a potentially powerful tool. She and her colleagues modified Cas9 and produced a simpler guide RNA, allowing CRISPR to be used to alter the DNA of all organisms in which it has been attempted. Alongside their work, Doudna and Sternberg also stepped out from the shadows of academia and onto the public stage. These years of public engagement and consultation with policy makers have allowed Doudna and Sternberg to hone their explanations of the science and to explore the implication with skill, the great strength of the book.

Their main ethical concerns with CRISPR are in regards to its use in germ cells and embryos, as this would alter the genetic constitution of the person and their descendants permanently. Doudna and Sternberg don’t call for rigid ban on this editing in all cases, but would rather scientists refrain from implementing this until the safety and efficacy concerns are addressed and there has been a public conversation on whether we should alter the future of humanity in this manner. Instead, Doudna and Sternberg champion the therapeutic use of CRISPR by editing the DNA of somatic cells. This only alters the DNA of the organ or area treated in the patient, and cannot affect their offspring, and could potential eradicate HIV, hemophilia and similar diseases.

Doudna and Sternbrg do stress throughout the book that the technology is currently imprecise and produces a mosaic of altered and unaffected cells in treated tissues. However, the work done by Mitalipov et al and others show that these challenges are being rapidly overcome. The authors’ reliance on the current inefficiencies of CRISPR technologies to suggesting that it will not be the path to designer babies does lack persuasive power. For the non-specialists seeing seemingly miraculous developments emerge every month now, technical barriers seem only temporary, until the next bit of lab-based magic happens. They give little consideration to the main concerns of those predicting a eugenic future, not just that the genes of embryos may be edited but that they will be altered so as to produce a monoculture of blue-eyed Übermensch. This is unlikely to happen not necessarily due to technological limits, but most importantly due to the extreme ambiguity of human development and gene expression. There is no gene for musical virtuosity, and even a relatively simple trait like eye colour is determined and influence by a myriad of different genetic pathways, perturbations in any of which may or may not alter the outcome. And then there are the environmental influences which can make the difference between the virtuoso and the tone-deaf.

For all of these reasons, gene editing will have a limited impact on the complex traits that cause middle-class parents so much anxiety, but it could have a significant impact on the incidence of traits and diseases with simple or Mendelian genetic causes. CRISPR could never bring about the Übermensch, but if germ cell and embryonic editing occurs, if only in China, for example as there is already the desire to do so, then diseases like Huntington’s, but also deafness and some learning disabilities, could begin to disappear from the population.  CRISPR gene editing of embryos poses questions regarding the diversity of the human gene pool,  whether we can propose to alter it, and if so, what of the limited amount of diversity we can affect do we want to alter?

Stylistically, the book is written in Doudna’s voice, but I gather it was Sternberg’s idea to write it. This gives the work some anchoring in the life of human beings, conveying the collaborative nature of the field as well as the human frailties that lie behind the top-tier publications. The book opens with Doudna’s anxiety dream of being subsumed by a wave, which she suggests symbolises her being overwhelmed by the enormous ethical implications of her work. Later, they recount a far more unsubtle dream in which a pig-faced Hitler asks Doudna to explain the CRISPR technology to him, which needs no explanation. This gives the book an accessible moral sensibility, the ethics are not discussed entirely dispassionately and academically, but from the viewpoint of someone who do not want their work to be used for evil. But the personal slant is limited and Doudna’s emotional responses feel mediated as the book is co-authored, and so lose some of their power. I would have liked to have seen more of the mind of the scientist at work, to understand a real-life Victor Frankenstein, though given how soon after the introduction of CRISPR gene editing the book was written, the first Doudna et al. CRISPR paper was only published in 2012, it is too early to expect a tell-all memoir like Watson’s The Double Helix.

On the whole, A Crack in Creation is a very clear explanation of the science and considered and non-diadactic exploration of associated ethical concerns, inviting the reader to stop and consider the implications in an informed manner rather than being swept up in an ill-informed media furor. And at the very least, it will provide a wealth of material fro Doudna to draw upon when she makes her no-doubt forthcoming Nobel Prize acceptance speech.