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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Gene Machine The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Biography / Memoir Popular Science
By: Venki Ramakrishnan(Author), Jennifer A Doudna(Foreword By)
273 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
More memoir than pop-science book, Gene Machine is a riveting insider's account of the race to describe the structure of the ribosome.
Gene Machine
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  • Gene Machine ISBN: 9781786076717 Paperback Sep 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Gene Machine ISBN: 9781786074362 Hardback Sep 2018 Out of Print #242966
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

Everyone knows about DNA. It is the essence of our being, determining who we are and what we pass on to our children. The ribosome, on the other hand, doesn't enjoy such wide understanding. Yet without it nothing lives. It is the mother of all molecules. For if DNA is data then it can't go anywhere, or do anything, without a machine to process it. The ribosome is that machine.

Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan tells the story of the race to uncover the structure of the ribosome, a fundamental discovery that resolves an ancient mystery of life itself and could lead to the development of better antibiotics to fight the most deadly diseases. A fascinating insider account, Gene Machine charts Ramakrishnan's unlikely journey from his first fumbling experiments in a biology lab to being at the centre of a fierce competition at the cutting edge of modern science.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • More memoir than pop-science, but a great read
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 28 Sep 2018 Written for Hardback

    DNA has lodged itself in the public imagination as the “blueprint” of life and as other, often slightly deceiving, metaphors. But what happens next? How do organisms actually get anything done with the information coded in DNA? For biologists, this is standard textbook fare: DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. The cell organ, or organelle, that does the latter part is the ribosome, which Venki Ramakrishnan introduces here in Gene Machine. He has written a riveting first-hand account of the academic race to describe its structure, and how, in the process, he bagged a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.

    Ramakrishnan initially intended to become a theoretical physicist, but soon became fascinated with biology. After finishing his PhD in physics he started over as a biology graduate. The bulk of this book describes how he became enamoured with learning more about the ribosome and spent decades studying it, going from student to postdoc to professorship, all the while recruiting brilliant students and colleagues to collaborate with. But he did not operate alone. As the decades progressed and more of the ribosome’s structure was clarified, competition for publication in top-tier journals intensified. Various research groups around the world were working in parallel towards the same goal: a complete, detailed structural description of all the protein and RNA elements making up a ribosome.

    Ramakrishnan has purposefully decided to make this book foremost a personal memoir of his contributions during those decades of research, and of those of his collaborators and competitors. He describes the many pitfalls, mistakes, tensions, and rivalries with disarming honesty and gives a very good picture of what real science looks like “in the wild”.

    If you were hoping for an accessible overview of the current state of ribosome biology, this book might leave you wanting more. For example, Ramakrishnan almost off-handedly mentions how we have come to learn that “the” ribosome doesn’t exist, but there seem to be many types, something which he does not elaborate on. Another interesting observation is that the core of ribosomes consists entirely of RNA, with various clusters of proteins on the outside. Since many scientists think that life started off as single-stranded RNA acquiring the ability to self-replicate (see Life from an RNA World), this could point to how the ribosome evolved. By the time the structure of the ribosome was finally elucidated by x-ray crystallography, further technical developments in electron microscopy made it possible to use that technique instead, with superior results. This is very reminiscent of the rapid developments in DNA sequencing, where the first efforts were herculean and incredibly costly, after which new developments accelerated and eased the process tremendously.

    I would have loved to know more about these and other details, especially as there is no good popular science book on ribosomes so far – instead DNA gets all the love (see for example The Gene, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, or Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are). I am convinced that Ramakrishnan could have written a fantastically readable overview, as he does a good job of familiarising readers with his method of choice, x-ray crystallography, and with the function and structure of the ribosome, making good use of illustrations.

    Towards the end of the book, Ramakrishnan reflects on the effect of prizes on competition and rivalries in science, noticing how politics often trumps achievements when it comes to awarding them. Once scientists have been awarded one prize, many will often follow, with committees almost seeming to play it safe. Similarly, the fact that Nobel Prizes can only be shared between three people, a quirk from the early days, is increasingly embarrassing in an era when large research consortia work on problems, leaving many researchers unrecognised.

    Gene Machine provides a good broad-strokes overview of the ribosome. I would have loved more details on the biology, feeling teased and tickled by the many interesting, off-hand observations and findings Ramakrishnan briefly mentions. As a science memoir, however, the book is a great read that I could barely put down, and gives an honest insider’s account of the competitive nature of scientific research.
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Venki Ramakrishnan is an Indian-born American and British structural biologist. He shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the structure and function of the ribosome, and was knighted in 2012. In 2015, he was elected as President of the Royal Society. He works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.

Biography / Memoir Popular Science
By: Venki Ramakrishnan(Author), Jennifer A Doudna(Foreword By)
273 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
More memoir than pop-science book, Gene Machine is a riveting insider's account of the race to describe the structure of the ribosome.
Media reviews

"A must-read for anyone interested in a glimpse of the messy business – rivalries, failed experiments, the frustration of mistakes – of how science happens."
The Times

"An engaging and witty memoir [...] that highlights how science actually works [...] This profoundly human story is written with honesty and humility [...] Anyone who is captivated by an absorbing story well told will find much to appreciate in this fascinating book."

"This is not an objective history of the field, but a highly personal account. As such, anyone who wants to know how modern science really works should read it. It's all here: the ambition, jealousy and factionalism – as well as the heroic late nights, crippling anxiety and disastrous mistakes – that underlie the apparently serene and objective surface represented by the published record."

"It is [Ramakrishnan's] full embrace of the role of the antihero that makes Gene Machine so much fun to read and also serves as a reminder to us all of the beating human heart that lies at the center of every advance in science."
Wall Street Journal

"If someone had told me that one of the most witty and enthralling books I'd read this year would be on the quest to understand ribosomes, I believe I would have laughed in his face, but I would have been quite wrong. Gene Machine is beyond superb."
– Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything

"Discovering the structure of the ribosome was a truly incredible moment in the history of humankind [...] For students of how science actually happens, this is a book to be treasured and pored over."
– Matt Ridley, author of Genome

"The ribosome, a structure of astonishing complexity, "lies at the crossroads of life" and Venki Ramakrishnan played a key role in revealing its biological mysteries. His superb account lays out the science with great lucidity, but he also grants us the human face of science – the hard work and brilliant insights, of course, but also the role of luck, of personalities, jealousy, money, the roulette of major awards, and the further rewards heaped upon the fortunate. Science, in his glorious telling, becomes "a play, with good and bad characters". Competition and collaboration can appear inseparable, crucial figures get overlooked. It's a wonderful book and a great corrective to the notion of science as dispassionate, untainted objectivity."
– Ian McEwan

"[Ramakrishnan's] meticulously detailed and generous memoir has the same disarming frankness as The Double Helix. His personal honesty about the competitive ambition that drove him is tempered by his deeply thoughtful reflections on the potentially corrupting effect of big prizes. Gene Machine will be read and re-read as an important document in the history of science."
– Richard Dawkins

"An enchanting and invigorating work, Gene Machine casts a many-angled light on the world of science, the nature of discovery, and on one of the deepest mysteries of twentieth-century biology. Ramakrishnan, one of the key players in deciphering the molecular basis of protein translation, gives us both a rollicking scientific story and a profoundly human tale. In the tradition of The Double Helix, Gene Machine does not hesitate to highlight the process by which science advances: moving through fits and starts, often underscored by deep rivalries and contests, occasionally pitching towards error and misconception, but ultimately advancing towards profound and powerful truths. An outsider to the world of ribosome biology – an Indian immigrant, a physicist by training – Ramakrishnan retains his "outsider's" vision throughout the text, reminding us about the corrosive nature of scientific prizes, and the intensity of competition that drives researchers (both ideas, I suspect, will have a munificent effect on our current scientific culture). Ramakrishnan's writing is so honest, lucid and engaging that I could not put this book down until I had read to the very end."
– Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies and The Gene

"Quite a ride. This is a riveting personal account of the race to decipher the structure of the ribosome, one of the most complex and fundamental machines in the cell [...] Ramakrishnan's telling is laced with wisdom spun from a remarkable life story and the sharp lab anecdotes that are the lifeblood of everyday science."
– Nick Lane, author of The Vital Question

"This exhilarating account of the race to understand the molecular machine that turns genes into flesh and blood is remarkable for its candid insights into the way science is really done, by human beings with all their talents and foibles. Venki Ramakrishnan, an outsider in the race, gives an insider's view of the decades-long quest to map the million atoms in the machine to fathom the fundamentals of life, pave the way for new antibiotics, and share the glory of the Nobel Prize."
– Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum Group

"In Gene Machine one of the world's leading scientists reveals the reality of scientific discovery and the rivalry, collaboration and thrills that are involved. The result is a brilliant under-the-hood account of what it takes to win the Nobel Prize. Exciting and brutally honest, Venki's book explains the dramatic turns in the race to describe the structure of the ribosome – an essential component of every cell that has ever lived. I laughed out loud, I shouted in disbelief, and I learned so much from reading this book."
– Matthew Cobb, author of Life's Greatest Secret

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