Mobile DNA: Finding Treasures in Junk by Haig Kazazian, Jr. – First Impressions

As far as the biology of small things go, one field I always found interesting was non-coding DNA- you know, roughly 98% of our genome that’s not really making any protein. The Human Genome Project only told us what sequence the letters were arranged. That part is interesting, but it’s not the end-all-be-all to biology popular perception sometimes makes it out to be. We still don’t know the functions of many parts of the genome, much less have an integrated, comprehensive view of how it works as a system. After all, an unearthed script is interesting, but much more so if we could actually understand what it said.

This is especially a problem when it comes to the DNA bits that aren’t making proteins. Mobile DNA (alternatively called jumping genes, alter-alternatively called transposons) are a large subset of this non-coding variety of DNA.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find a book dedicated specifically to this topic- that too with such a flashy, colorful cover and chapter titles such as “The Mayor and the Frenchman” (Ch. 16) and “Hiroki’s Big Surprises” (Ch. 22- and spoilers: Hiroki’s not an anime character). And it’s not overly long either (~223 pages without references). This looked like one of those popular-level biology books intended at the educated layman (or at most the biology undergrad). This genre of books seem to be getting more and more popular (perhaps following the success of pop astronomy).

Look how cute the cover is! I bet I could run through the whole thing over a weekend afternoon in between naps…

So uh…this book is really nothing like I was expecting. This is just a “first impressions” post, as opposed to a thorough review, so I’ll just talk about the key features that stick out at the first reading.

The first thing you note about the book is its unevenness- and I say that to describe, not to evaluate. The first six chapters comprise an uncompromisingly technical account of mobile DNA basics (categories, basic mechanisms, etc). The last seven chapters return to this trend, and located between these two blocks of dense academic presentation are chronicles of the professor’s scientific journey. In more concrete terms, each of these seventeen chapters usually focus on one of the students he supervised, the experiments they ran, and the results those efforts yielded. There are definitely personal touches to the description, but it never lays off the jargon. Experiments are described in concise, scientific terms, figures look like the schematics you find in journal publications, in short- the science in this book reads just like specialized texts. So content-wise, the book (especially the first six and last seven chapters) can be considered as being a very up-to-date account of mobile DNA research as it stood when it was published (2010). When it comes to considerations of style and readability, however- there’s very little here to meet the expectations of a more casual reader. Mind you, I’m not exactly new to this field- I’ve been studying microbiology and different aspects of genome science for the past six years or so, but that training doesn’t prepare you to shoot through this one.

If you want to really benefit from the book, clear up your schedule, read up on transposons from a textbook first (Snustad or Brown would do), then sit down in a well-lit room, pencil in hand, Mobile DNA on table. An Amazon reviewer said it best- this book is targeted towards a very specific audience, graduate students thinking about doing their PhD on the topic. I found it more than a little curious that this of all books would try to pull the cute move of teaching readers what a DNA looks like (ch. 2). If you didn’t know that before coming to read this book, consider switching genres.

In terms of the content therefore, I can’t say I really benefited, since it was completely different than what I was expecting. When it comes to my personal life and growth as a scientist, however, it’s a somewhat different story. The book definitely had its moments in that regard.

For me personally, the book’s highest point was probably its preface, where the professor presents a concise summary of his thoughts on doing science and how to succeed at the craft. He tackles a number of important but concrete topics like having strong personal motivation for doing science, the importance of good mentorship, inter-lab communications, and so forth. The tone adopted here is that of a caring but no-nonsense counselor, and you could really feel his decades of experience speaking. We could all do with a little less both of the broad (to the point of being meaningless) platitudes aged professors are fond of repeating, and the policy prescriptions for super-specific contingencies you get from lab seniors. Professor Kazazian offers us a happy medium. Something like this should be mandatory reading for all young scientists.

The professor also mentions a lot of lab life snippets from chapters 8-23. Most of them had to do with quirks of individual students or other lab idiosyncrasies. As anyone who’s worked in a good lab can testify, science is seldom easy. Scientific experiments rarely succeed the first few times you run them, and even the successful ones often fail when repeated. Most of the time it’s just thankless labor. If you’re lucky, in between these sustained periods of stress you get positive results, and they give the fleeting impression that all of this will be worth it at the end of the day. The professor presents his accounts in a more or less matter-of-fact way, but I could catch the glimpses of this depressing undercurrent when he mentions, for example, that a student had one month to make an experiment work and get results, how one researcher slept on the bench outside the lab at night instead of going home, and how more than one of his students had to give up on their projects altogether. Given where I’m currently at with my research (stuck), I found quite a few sympaticos among the book’s characters. I’m probably being somewhat post-structural here- most of the stories really aren’t depressing. Once in a while, though, you really need a book you can read all your grief into.

Anyways, let’s wrap up our first impressions with this uber-scientific account of how someone got their PCRs to work in Dr. Kazazian’s lab in Johns Hopkins:

DeBerardinis also liked to run. He and another graduate student friend would go for five-mile runs in the late afternoon before returning to work in the lab after dinner. After a few months in the lab, Ralph had a pair of old, very grubby, beat up, smelly running shoes that were ready for the trash but that he kept in the lab. After the first time he successfully obtained a tough DNA clone with those shoes nestled in his bottom desk drawer, they became known in the lab as “Ralph’s lucky cloning shoes.” When lab members wanted to get a difficult clone, they would invoke Ralph’s lucky cloning shoes. If the shoes were still in the desk drawer, chances are the cloning would be successful! Sometimes the shoes were even placed on the PCR machine to get a dicey PCR to work. [p. 115]

Who says raw perseverance in science can’t be complemented with a little shoe-worship?

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