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Ruth’s Reviews – My Beautiful Genome

Ruth Francis, Nature’s head of press, is reading the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton prize for science books at a rate of one a week. She’s done it before. Will she succeed this year? The winner of the prize will be announced on 26 November.

Frank by name and frank by nature; My Beautiful Genome begins with the quirky and honest unveiling of a forceful personality and a family history of depression.

But for all of its exploration of the author’s own traits, this could just as aptly be named ‘Our Beautiful Genomes’. Personal genomics has a long way to go before it achieves its promise and becomes particularly insightful to any individual. As Lone Frank discovers on her adventures through her own genetic make up, it is not yet beneficial to look at individual dimensions. We may assess a population, or get an overview of a person, but can we learn anything specific that we did not already know through experience?

Frank derives a sense of satisfaction at finding a genetic basis for her lack of agreeableness, or propensity to irritation with others. But of course, she was already aware of her foibles and stated them outright in the opening pages. Tests for specific gene variants of BDNF which can affect how women handle stress – and SERT – which is linked with depression – again validate something she already knew.

It is clear that genomics is a fast moving and rapidly expanding field. Like its subject matter, the book quickly becomes technical, covering a lot of ground in the early chapters, presumably in order to bring the reader up to speed.

The fact that many studies flagged as embryonic in these early passages have now been published, such as the 1,000 genomes study from the 1000 Genomes Project, that appeared this very week in Nature, is testament to the pace of research. But even as a relatively well-versed reader, I found the level of detail hard-going.

The writing style is direct and confident. The reader is treated with an intellectual respect that is both flattering and educational. One weakness though, is in the interviews. Frank paints vivid pictures of her subjects, and their surroundings. She seems insightful and reads them well, but reproduces interviews almost verbatim, which I found frustrating given her talents in summarising complex information elsewhere. Perhaps this is a direct result of her personality test scores: high in openness and empathy, but low on agreeableness and compliance. Nevertheless this is a captivating, instructional, and enjoyable read.

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