Signs of Life

Robert Pollack uses language and literature as a metaphor to describe the structure and mechanisms of DNA, the molecule that determines the form and functions of every living cell. He describes DNA as a set of instructions that is read and interpreted—often ambiguously—by cellular material to create, sustain, and sometimes destroy an organism. He also describes DNA as a historical text, the current manifestation of all that has happened since the first strand of DNA materialized from the primal soup.

Pollack provides the general reader with all he or she needs to appreciate this metaphor by including primers on the structure of both DNA and human language. He does not, however, shelter the reader from the complexity of life at the molecular level: At one point, Pollack describes the progression of a kidney disease in the African Green monkey, providing a blow-by-blow, thrilling and horrifying, battle scene where one gene in one virus exhibits five meanings, depending on context. Pollack also covers the broad implications of the current knowledge of genetics not only for every branch of medicine and the life sciences but also for every branch of the humanities and social sciences as well.

Pollack’s work is enlightening and exciting. The images he uses to make molecular biology accessible to the general reader—the cell as a city, DNA as a twisted vine—are vivid. For readers who are not biologists, this book will broaden and deepen their awareness of what humans are and where they have originated. For young biologists, the book is an inspiration. For those yet undecided on a career, the book might be a turning point.