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Genes made simple

WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA? GENETICS. By Martin Brookes. Illustrated by Nick Dewar. Hodder Pounds 3.99

TALKING POINT: DESIGNER GENES. By Phil Gates. Scholastic Pounds 3.99

Genetics is often viewed as a notoriously difficult subject by GCSE and A-level students and under-graduates studying general biology degrees. The reasons for this are complex but are partly due to the subject's arcane terminology and an historical approach to its teaching, based on the work of Mendel, that reduces understanding genetics to little more than solving quasi-statistical problems based on phenotypic ratios the origin of which remain, ultimately, mysterious.

Consequently, biology students often fail to achieve the level of conceptual understanding needed to appreciate the excitement engendered by the explanatory power of the subject that lies at the heart of modern biology. Furthermore, genetics and genetic thinking are so pervasive in the modern world that all of us need access to straightforward accounts of the questions geneticists try to answer and the ethical problems that genetics generates. This is what these two books set out to do and I recommend them unreservedly.

Martin Brookes and Nick Dewar offer a lightning tour around the main ideas of genetics and the ethical dilemmas raised by genetic engineering and screening, while Designer Genes, despite its comic book cover of a mad scientist (white, male and balding), provides a sober and reasoned account of genetic technology. While both books contain niggling minor technical errors - confusion of genes and alleles, for example - the sheer scope of both means you wish to ignore these minor definitional misdemeanours.

The books tackle the big questions of genetics, ranging from the biochemical to the population level of explanation. They lucidly explain the ethical debates about genetic engineering, for example, and the science underpinning the technology. They are easy to follow and ultimately help the reader to understand the nature of the problems which genetics, as a science, seeks to tackle.

But these are not just books for the specialist. Their coverage of ethical issues and their clarity of explanation are such that they would be excellent reading for anyone seeking to engage in an informed way with the current debates about, for example, the genetic engineering of crops.

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