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American Scientist

Enrico Coen

The Art of Genes

When you start to think about how an organism develops from a single cell you realise that it isn't as straightforward as it may seem. It isn't like creating an object from a blueprint, but the question is what is it like? In The Art of Genes: How Organisms Make Themselves Enrico Coen uses the metaphor of artistic creativity to describe the process of development.

Coen starts by introducing the idea of hidden colours - a code which determines how different parts of an organism start off the same but develop differently, for instance the different parts of a flower, or the segments of an insect. He explains how this is achieved via master proteins which can switch certain characteristics on or off. He then shows how diffusion of a chemical can lead a concentration gradient, and so a distinction between different parts of the organism. Later chapters of the book look at the place of symmetry in the development process.

The book has plenty of pictures - both diagrams of the organisms in question and works of art used to explain the artistic metaphor. This metaphor does get a bit far-fetched at times - for instance numerous artists on an expanding canvas - but I felt that it was generally a useful one, and leads well into a discussion of why development should be thought of as a creative process, rather than a predetermined path. However if you are knowledgeable in the subject then you will probably find the book rather slow going - I think it is more aimed at those looking for a gentle introduction to the role of genes in development.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews