The Delphic Boat

Antoine Danchin, head of the Unit of Genetics of Bacterial Genomes at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and director of the Pasteur Research Center in Hong Kong, is one of the world’s most prominent authorities on genetics and uniquely qualified to interpret current discoveries in this area. The basic question about the genome seems to Danchin similar to a question once posed to the ancient Delphic Oracle. If the planks of a boat gradually rot, and each plank is replaced until no original plank of the boat remains, is it still the same boat? Danchin answers that it is, because the identity of the boat does not lie in any or even all of its planks, but in the pattern of relationships among them. This is similar, in Danchin’s view, to life. The identity of a living organism does not lie in its DNA or in the proteins of the DNA, but in the relationships among these basic elements that yield a consistent code.

From his basic theme of how relationships among genes and cells provide maps of life, the author develops a multi-faceted investigation of genome research. He gives readers a history of this research, detailing the contributions of researchers in different nations, providing insight into the politics and processes of modern research. The interpretation of genomes, he shows, is affected as much by political and business concerns such as the controversial patenting of genetic sequences as it is by scientific curiosity.

It is not enough to discover genetic patterns, Danchin maintains. These must be interpreted. In considering what this interpretation means, Danchin moves through descriptions of how gene sequences are identified, to issues in the philosophy of science. Although the book deals with some highly technical matters, the author manages to write about these in a manner that will be intelligible and interesting to most general readers.