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Tears of the Cheetah and Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier. Stephen J. O'Brien. St. Martin's Press, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2003. 304 pp. $25.95 (ISBN 0312272863 cloth).

Since the emergence of molecular biology, researchers have quickly confirmed and expanded scientific knowledge of how living things are related and how natural selection works. Unfortunately, many people, including students entering college today, are generally unaware of the significance of these findings, or of the role that molecular biology plays in scientific inquiry. Undergraduate education about genetics and the biology of the genome too often stops at the structure of the nucleotides, leaving students puzzled and often uninterested in the significance of these structures they cannot see. Tears of the Cheetah and Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier is a collection of stories that tackle this problem head-on. Each chapter unfolds unexpected and sometimes shocking lessons about beloved animals—cheetahs, pandas, humpback whales, and others—that serve as “parables of hope and lessons of survival,” in the words of the book's author, Stephen J. O'Brien.

For nearly 30 years, O'Brien, head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Institutes of Health, and his research group have used comparative genetics to study the evolution of the immune system, retroviruses, and cancer onset in mammalian species dispersed over the planet. This comparative approach has led to interesting discoveries about natural selection and evolutionary processes in the face of such trying conditions as disease and inbreeding. The stories that emerge in Tears of the Cheetah are an intimate look into the contributions this laboratory has made to comparative genomics, conservation biology, human forensics, and medicine.

In the years that I have known Steve O'Brien, he has always had real-life adventure stories to tell, which invariably prompt questions and keep his listeners on the edge of their seats. These stories fascinate not because they explain the complexity of genetic structure and inheritance but because they portray the significance of the hidden secrets of the mammalian genome. Molecular biology just happens to be one of the tools O'Brien and his students and colleagues use to investigate these mysteries.

In Tears of the Cheetah, O'Brien unveils the process of scientific inquiry—in other words, the interesting stuff for those who do not understand the intricate details of molecular biology. For instance, after revealing that cheetahs have strikingly little variation in their genome—90 to 99 percent less diversity than other cat species—he poses these important questions: What are the implications for disease and reproduction in a highly inbred species? How quickly can a species recover from near extinction? What can we learn from the natural history of this species that will assist in efforts to conserve it and other endangered mammals? This is not the stuff of a molecular biology textbook; Tears of the Cheetah is designed to convey a different scientific story, one of inquiry, not technique.

Each chapter is an independent tale that introduces an interesting problem and shows how the molecular sleuths take on the challenge. In the process, O'Brien introduces and explains terminology and techniques in molecular biology, providing just enough information about these concepts and techniques to give the reader “aha!” moments. For example, the first chapter relates a story dating back to the Ming Dynasty about a lethal cancer epidemic in mice. A retrovirus in the genome is the culprit, and the mystery to be solved is how descendant populations of mice evolved resistance and survive today. And what about humans, with 1 percent of our DNA retrovirus related—what secrets of our evolutionary past and future are hidden within our genome? It is an intriguing teaser for stories to come.

Subsequent chapters present a diverse array of legal, cultural, and political twists and turns. Among O'Brien's topics are the threat to the endangered species status of Florida panthers (the answer to which involves the genes of some Costa Rican cousins); whale poaching in Japan; and a mysterious, devastating plague in African lions. Orangutans from Borneo and pandas from China make their appearance. AIDS and the Black Death make more somber reading. Near the end is a murder mystery set on Prince Edward Island, involving a cat named Snowball. In every case, O'Brien showcases a brilliant story of genetic sleuthing and offers examples of carefully designed, inquiry-based science.

The book's strongest contribution is a revelation of what molecular biology is on the threshold of contributing to society. O'Brien refers to countless experiments nature has “composed and performed” and implies that through comparative genomics, people will gain a greater understanding of how living organisms evolve and how they are connected. The implications for humanity are emphasized in the opening and closing chapters of the book. The Human Genome Project and human gene therapy are presented to reveal their potential, still in its infancy, for curing disease. It is impossible to read one of the stories and put the book down without wondering how lessons learned from the evolution of other species might be relevant to us. The potential to point the way for a cure to some human diseases, including AIDS, seems inevitable.

Each of the stories in Tears of the Cheetah contributes to an understanding of how science works in the real world, at least in part by showing how graduate students, researchers, and technicians work to solve problems. These are familiar stories to O'Brien, who was directly involved in each one. In fact, they are largely a chronology of his career, starting as a self-proclaimed “naïve” fruit-fly geneticist and developing into an internationally renowned conservation biologist. O'Brien also touches on the difficulties involved in translating scientific knowledge into political action, portraying international scandal and courtroom intrigue as he systematically introduces familiar concepts reported in the news—polymerase chain reaction, DNA fingerprinting, and microsatellite markers, to name a few. A brief glossary explains the less familiar terminology.

Tears of the Cheetah is an excellent introduction to its subject, accessible to people without a background in genetics. It quickly reveals the potential of molecular biology for understanding mammalian evolution, assisting conservation efforts, aiding forensic science, and curing human disease. Tears of the Cheetah is also an enormously inspiring and entertaining read. As I mused on the book, I was struck by the relevance of the stories to many current issues involving conservation, disease, and forensics—issues that are relevant to the lives of undergraduates at the university where I teach, and doubtless at other campuses as well. Tears of the Cheetah will provoke discussion among nonmajor students and other readers who are searching for a way to connect science to their lives. It is a unique contribution to the literature and a superb introduction to the vast potential of molecular biology as a tool to help us understand how the natural world works. Finally, it is a reminder of human mortality and of our place among the other mammals that are so much like us.

Published: 1 November 2004

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