Book review

Six hundred pages that will tell you more about yourself and your future than anything else

Few books pack as much science with as much intimacy as Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene’.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in, with many anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

Across 600-plus pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer) narrates the story of the discovery of genes, the evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline, and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene”, coined by the monk Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades, only to be revived in early twentieth century, after which it became a common term.

A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany.

Half a century later, the helical structure of DNA & RNA was discovered. Two decades later, questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet, recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin, achieving resounding success. And by 2000, about a century from the time the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced.

Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato, were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in semen. Aristotle rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details the manner in which, over the centuries, people theorised how information was carried across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel’s experiments with peas and Darwin’s theories.

Mukherjee argues that the resurrection of the term was a watershed moment in the history of genetics, as suddenly there was a concatenation of events that led to furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism – coining the word, understanding the structure, exploring the mechanism, and estimating the potential.

Distortion of knowledge

Soon afterwards, the Nazis used this branch of “applied biology” to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, citing genetic theory to justify their policy of Lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. Their notion was based on the premise that identity was fixed by genetic make-up.

Curiously enough, another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis in complete pliability. In both cases, science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”.

These twisted applications were overshadowed by rapid advancement in genetics, leading to, inter alia, the discovery of recombinant DNA, which helped create crucial medicines such as insulin, the ability to clone creatures as with Dolly the Sheep.

Not surprisingly, questions began to be asked about the ethical aspects of genetics. These questions feature prominently in Mukherjee’s examination, as he weighs the implications of using genome engineering to “enhance” humans, asking if it’s a good idea.

Uncovering truths

It has been an extraordinary period of success for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.

To a lay reader, The Gene is a brilliant historical overview, but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick.

It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned alongside Watson and Crick’s. Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in a way that makes it evident that the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.

What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, led to an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is outstanding for the manner in which it weaves the author’s precise scientific temper, offering technical information, with factually accurate and significant contemporary events. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene, the truth that hides within each of us.

The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Hamish Hamilton.

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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

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Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilized for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.