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How Dolly was cloned

A HISTORY OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY·Michel Morange· translated by Matthew Cobb·Oxford University Press·pp336·Rs 495

Published: Tuesday 30 November 1999

-- why are we reviewing a book on the history of molecular biology? Not because Michel Morange, who wrote it, is a professor of microbiology at the University of Paris VI and Ecole Normale superior, whatever that distinguished title means or because Matte Cob has done a great job of translating the book from French to English.

The real reason why we are reviewing the book is the reason why Oxford University Press decided to publish it in the first place. Molecular biology is something that is being discussed in the media almost everyday. Take, for instance, genetically modified organisms like the bt cotton, Monsanto's terminator seed or advances in genetic engineering as reflected in the cloning of Dolly. All this is a result of developments in molecular biology. It is definitely the science of the 1990s and the science that is going to dominate the 21st century. As its title states the book is a compact account of how molecular biology developed.

Michel Morange's canvas is vast. Being a molecular biologist it is easy for him to give us a rundown of events from the turn of the century to the 1980s to discuss the marriage of chemistry and biology, to go on to discussing microbiology and finally to talk about gene splicing and cloning techniques in the 1980s.

Classical molecular biology and new molecular biology has also been discussed. The author tries to show the difference between classical molecular biology, which stresses the importance of major discoveries like the dna structure centered on proteins or the study of amino acids which are the building blocks of life, to the new molecular biology which has become a new way of "reading" life. An attempt has been made not to leave out anyone. A lot of names are mentioned. The replication of the gene by Hargovind Khorana is treated as a landmark.

This book is basically a history of molecular biology. It also gives an idea of the fiscal history of research grants which played an essential role in the birth of this science.

It is not surprising to find that the Rockefeller Foundation played a major role in this. It is, therefore, right to say that the book is indeed on eye-opener. The book also provides a brief history of the life and times of the founders of this science Delbruck, Watson, Gick, Monod, Jacob and Nurenberg. There is a virtual absence of photographs and illustrations of any kind, but the language is simple and pleasing. and explains what molecular biology is all about.

A must read for anyone finding drawing room conversation on Monsanto or terminator technology a bit stifling or difficult to understand. A peek into how Dolly was cloned or what a clone actually is, is also available. It would be a good idea to walk over to the nearest library or bookshop and pick it up. Michel Morange fulfils his aim to write a book on the history of science that can be read by the general public.

Morange's attempt is good but it is a lot to ask from one book. For this reason he has not been able to devote as much space as he would have liked to each development in molecular biology. Each chapter starts off with a different theme, a discovery, a research group, or a particular historical question. This makes each chapter independent and you can pick it up and read from wherever you wish. But it has a disadvantage: it does not follow a chronological order of events.

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