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Digital Code of Life:
How Bioinformatics is Revolutionizing Science, Medicine, and Business

by Glyn Moody

Reviewed by
Patricia Thomas

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“The only reason to get married is that you just can’t help yourself,” my grandpa used to say. Similarly, the people who fall head-over-heels in love with genetics, genomics, and the like tend to be scientists or journalists who are swept off their feet by phenomena such as proteomics or systems biology. These besotted individuals have given us the best nonfiction books about science.

British journalist Glyn Moody may be different because biology doesn’t seem to be his passion. Moody has been a successful technology reporter for more than 20 years; he is a columnist for Britain’s Computer Weekly, and he has written for many magazines in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Moody’s well-reviewed first book was Rebel Code, a history of the open-source movement focusing on Linux and its creator, Linus Torvald. In his second book, The Digital Code of Life, Moody shifts his focus to bioinformatics, which he defines as “the marriage of molecular biology and computing.”

His opening chapter summarizes changing scientific theories about inheritance, and the next shows how computers have become as indispensable as centrifuges in biology labs. The following four chapters tell the familiar story of the human genome project and the much-hyped race between Celera, a private company, and academic sequencing teams supported in the United States by the National Institutes of Health.

Moody then embarks on a whirlwind tour of the disciplines developing rapidly since the human genome was sequenced. He touches on scientific fields including comparative, functional, and structural genomics; personal genomes; proteomics; and systems biology. Then he wraps up with a chapter linking it all to medicine.

This is a huge landscape. Moody’s reach seems to exceed his grasp, and his book’s subtitle is more promise than reality.

Moody’s determination to include as much technical information as possible leaves little room for storytelling. And without a narrative to engage readers, some may remember that reading is a gateway activity that often leads to napping.

Why so little human drama when biology today has its full share of heroes and villains, egomaniacs, and oddballs? Probably because Moody spent too much time summarizing journal articles and too little getting to know the scientists who wrote them.

Moody mentions approximately 160 researchers in the book, yet according to his own endnotes he interviewed only ten of them. The rest appear briefly and are never heard from again. If you already know who these people are, their cameo appearances will mean something to you. If you don’t, the names will evaporate as soon as you turn the page.

In the first half of Digital Code of Life, Craig Venter, then of Celera, is the only three-dimensional character, driven to achieve by life-changing experiences during the Vietnam War. It is perhaps ironic that Moody never interviewed Venter.

He did sit down with Eric Lander, who crops up repeatedly in the book. Moody touts Lander’s contributions to comparative genomics and functional genomics, and credits him with helping turn biology into “big science.” Yet we never learn what Lander looks like, what it’s like to talk with him, or anything about his motivations or temperament.

Nor does Moody meet readers halfway when he discusses the laboratory techniques and information technologies that are revolutionizing biology. There are far too many excerpts from journal articles and government reports, and too few analogies or metaphors to help non-scientists grasp what goes on in the lab and why it matters.

Given Moody’s extensive background as a technology writer, it’s not surprising that when he does try and translate biology for lay readers he slips into computer lingo. Sometimes this works: It’s helpful to think of DNA as a digital mechanism for heredity, able to copy itself more accurately than an analog system for storing genetic information.

But Moody’s reliance on IT jargon can also make him sound like a heartless geek: He describes a lethal embryonic mutation as “a fatal flaw in the operating system that causes the human system to crash as it boots up.”

Moody fares better when writing about the private sector’s role in modern biology, and he doesn’t shy away from messy and complicated patent disputes or ethical conundrums that arise when individual genomes are used commercially.

One of his more interesting observations is that economic realities have repeatedly forced “information” companies to reinvent themselves as engines for drug discovery. As Eric Lander says in the book, “The only thing that actually makes money is drugs.” Although Celera is the best-known example of a company that hopes for such a transformation, Moody shows that it wasn’t the first and won’t be the last.

Finally, Digital Code of Life is a great place to look up names and dates and refresh your memory about scientific contributions that deserve to be famous for more than 15 minutes.

There’s the story of Patrick Brown, for example, a gene expression expert whose workshops taught scientists how to create homemade cDNA microarrays instead of always relying on commercially made chips. And Moody is here to help if you need to know that IBM’s “Blue Gene” computer, designed to model protein folding, processes data at “petaflop” speeds—one million billion operations per second.

This is a terrific book to have on hand as a reference. Just don’t expect it to keep you entertained during a long flight.

Boston-based science writer Patricia Thomas is the author of Big Shot: Passion, Politics, and the Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine.

Moody, Glyn. Digital Code of Life. How Bioinformatics is Revolutionizing Science, Medicine, and Business. Wiley, New Jersey, 2004.

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