In laboratories, clinics, and companies around the world, an amazing revolution is taking place in our understanding of life. It will dramatically change the way medicine is practiced and have other effects on nearly everyone alive today. This revolution makes the news nearly every day, but the headlines often seem mysterious and scary. Discoveries are being made at such a dizzying pace that even scientists, let alone the public, can barely keep up.
The six-volume Genetics and Evolution set aims to explain what is happening in biological research and put things into perspective for high-school students and the general public. The themes are the main fields of current research devoted to four volumes: Evolution, The Molecules of Life, Genetic Engineering, and Developmental Biology. A fifth volume is devoted to Human Genetics, and the sixth, The Future of Genetics, takes a look at how these sciences are likely to shape science and society in the future. The books aim to fill an important need by connecting the history of scientific ideas and methods to their impact on today's research. Evolution, for example, begins by explaining why a new theory of life was necessary in the 19th century. It goes on to show how the theory is helping create new animal models of human diseases and is shedding light on the genomes of humans, other animals, and plants.
Most of what is happening in the life sciences today can be traced back to a series of discoveries made in the mid-19th century. Evolution, cell biology, heredity, chemistry, embryology, and modern medicine were born during that era. At first these fields approached life from different points of view, using different methods. But they have steadily grown closer, and today they are all coming together in a view of life that stretches from single molecules to whole organisms, complex interactions between species, and the environment.
The meeting point of these traditions is the cell. Over the last 50 years biochemists have learned how DNA, RNA, and proteins carry out a complex dialogue with the environment to manage the cell's daily business and to build complex organisms. Medicine is also focusing on cells: Bacteria and viruses cause damage by invading cells and disrupting what is going on inside. Other diseases—such as cancer or Alzheimer's disease—arise from inherent defects in cells that we may soon learn to repair.
This is a change in orientation. Modern medicine arose when scientists learned to fight some of the worst infectious diseases with vaccines and drugs. This strategy has not worked with AIDS, malaria, and a range of other diseases because of their complexity and the way they infiltrate processes in cells. Curing such infectious diseases, cancer, and the health problems that arise from defective genes will require a new type of medicine based on a thorough understanding of how cells work and the development of new methods to manipulate what happens inside them.
Today's research is painting a picture of life that is much richer and more complex than anyone imagined just a few decades ago. Modern science has given us new insights into human nature that bring along a great many questions and many new responsibilities. Discoveries are being made at an amazing pace, but they usually concern tiny details of biochemistry or the functions of networks of molecules within cells that are hard to explain in headlines or short newspaper articles. So the communication gap between the worlds of research, schools, and the public is widening at the worst possible time. In the near future young people will be called on to make decisions— large political ones and very personal ones—about how science is practiced and how its findings are applied. Should there be limits on research into stem cells or other types of human cells? What kinds of diagnostic tests should be performed on embryos or children? How should information about a person's genes be used? How can privacy be protected in an age when everyone carries a readout of his or her personal genome on a memory card? These questions will be difficult to answer, and decisions should not be made without a good understanding of the issues.
I was largely unaware of this amazing scientific revolution until 12 years ago, when I was hired to create a public information office at one of the world's most renowned research laboratories. Since that time I have had the great privilege of working alongside some of today's greatest researchers, talking to them daily, writing about their work, and picking their brains about the world that today's science is creating. These books aim to share those experiences with the young people who will shape tomorrow's science and live in the world that it makes possible.
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