Friday, April 06, 2007

An apt observation

Jonathan Hodgkin, a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, has published a nice essay in the March 28 edition of the Times Literary Supplement. It's built around a review of both Genesis Machines and Robert Frenay's recent book, Pulse (which I haven't yet had the chance to read, but which has a very nice website). This is the second occasion on which the two have been jointly reviewed (the first being Matt Ridley's examination here).

Anyway, I'm happy with Hodgkin's overall assessment of my own book, and he makes some fair points concerning gaps in topical coverage. I specifically avoided dealing in detail with quantum computing (although, to be fair, I did mention it), as I didn't want the book to turn into a detailed "quantum vs DNA" debate (and I'm not sure I have the expertise to do justice to the quantum "camp" anyway). It's understandable, though, that as a chemist Hodgkin should highlight the omission of aptamer development.

Aptamers are synthetic molecules that can fold up into very detailed three-dimensional shapes, thus binding to other molecules with incredible specificity. They can therefore be used to target other molecules in the same way as antibodies, and offer a wide range of applications in biotechnology and medicine. Because the possible space of three-dimensional shapes a molecule can adopt is potentially vast, researchers must use a smart approach to finding aptamers, as opposed to a "hit-and-hope" policy. The technique that has been developed, the name of which is abbreviated to SELEX,
uses an evolutionary approach based on an initial molecular population. Interestingly, it may be thought of (rather loosely) as a "wet" version of the genetic algorithm.

One possible hook that I could perhaps have made more of is the fact that Andrew Ellington, one of the founders of aptamer development, was one of the main researchers involved in recently building a bacterial camera (which did merit a mention in the book!)

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