When a Gene Makes You Smell Like a Fish: ...and Other Amazing Tales about the Genes in Your Body by Lisa Seachrist Chiu. Oxford University Press; 2006; $27; 240 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
From the gene that causes people to age prematurely to the "bitter gene" that may spawn broccoli haters, this book explores a few of the more exotic locales on the human genome, highlighting some of the tragic and bizarre ways our bodies go wrong when genes fall prey to mutation and the curious ways in which genes have evolved for our survival. Lisa Seachrist Chiu offers here a smorgasbord of stories about rare and not-so-rare genetic quirks -- the gene that makes some people smell like a fish, the Black Urine Gene, the Werewolf Gene, the Calico Cat Gene. We read about the Dracula Gene, a mutation in zebra fish that causes blood cells to explode on contact with light, and suites of genes that also influence behavior and physical characteristics. The Tangier Island Gene, first discovered after physicians discovered a boy with orange tonsils (scientists now realize that the child's odd condition comes from an inability to process cholesterol). And Wilson's disease, a gene defect that fails to clear copper from the body, which can trigger schizophrenia and other neurological symptoms and can be fatal if left untreated. On the plus side, we read about the Myostatin gene, a mutation which allows muscles to become much larger than usual and enhances strength -- indeed, the mutations have produced beefier cows and at least one stronger human. And there is also the much-envied Cheeseburger Gene, which allows a lucky few to eat virtually anything they want and remain razor thin.
While fascinating us with stories of genetic peculiarities, Chiu also manages to explain cutting-edge research in modern genetics, resulting in a book that is both informative and entertaining. It is a must read for everyone who loves popular science or is curious about the human body.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: Although Chiu uses a catchy title, cute jokes, and soft watercolor illustrations by her mother to disguise this book as popular science, she has produced a rigorous and detailed survey of the most recent developments in human genetics; a "Genetics Primer" is appended, and many readers will no doubt need it. The first chapter, on a woman who smelled so badly of fish she had to take a three-month leave of absence from work, seems at first the usual, chatty fare of much popular science writing. Within a few paragraphs, however, Chiu has launched into a complex discussion of gene mutation and enzymes. Chiu writes best in her detailed accounts of these genetic oddities, but the names Chiu and others have given the genes responsible ("The Cheeseburger Gene," "The Werewolf Gene," "The Calico Cat Gene") often belie their seriousness, a problem echoed in Chiu's personal anecdotes, which seem to serve less as relevant commentary than as deliberate bids for a larger readership. Chiu's greater contribution is in her willingness to trust her audience with explanations of genetics research that are long, dense, complicated, and surprisingly accessible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lisa Seachrist Chiu is a journalist and writer who has covered the cutting edge of genetics, medicine, and molecular biology for more than a decade. She's been published in United Press International Syndicate papers, Science, Science News, BioWorld Today, Discovery.com, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She lives in Washington, D.C.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
When I phoned Lisa Seachrist Chiu at her home in Washington D.C., she and her husband had just returned from a trip to the park with their 20-month-old daughter, Anya. As Lisa and I spoke on the phone, father and daughter could be heard in the background, making preparations for a midday nap. "Were you expecting at the time you were writing your book?" I asked. "As a matter of fact, I was. I would say that writing a book on genetics while you are pregnant is probably not the best thing to do. It's a little too much information."
"Where did the notion for this book originate?"
"It started as an idea by an agent. The agent sold the idea to a friend of mine who got the book contract and ultimately decided that he didn't want to do it. I had been working for a dot-com, and the dot-com went 'poof,' so I was in a place where this was a reasonable thing for me to consider doing. Then, through a whole host of reasons, the book took longer than I expected. There were changes in editors. At one point I had to re-do the proposal. There was a lot of silliness. Then, because it was not my idea, originally, there were additional challenges.
"Originally the book was sold as a bunch of interesting little stories about genes. The idea was that there would be 40 to 60 of them. But Oxford felt there needed to be some unifying theme, so I organized the stories around major concepts like dominant and recessive genes. You could nearly teach a genetics course with the stories that I have."
"What background did you bring to the topic?"
"I have a master's degree in Biochemistry from Duke, so I have a lot of science background. I'm also the former Washington editor for a biotechnology newspaper called BioWorld Today, so this kind of stuff was really old hat for me."
"When you thought about writing this, did you identify an ideal reader and determine what sort of background they would bring to the piece, so that you knew how much information to provide?"
"You know, I probably should have. I first identified the very basic things that you need to know in order to understand these stories. I tried to put all of that into the Genetics Primer in the appendix. Originally, that section was at the very beginning of the book. It became clear right away that that just wouldn't work. Nobody wants to be schooled right off."