Book Review: How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells by Lewis Wolpert

Review by Nathan Seppa

You don’t hear many scientists describe themselves as cell biologists anymore—geneticist or molecular biologist seems to be preferred. But cells are still more than the sum of their parts. By taking an all-inclusive look at human cells, Wolpert offers a portrait of their seemingly chaotic workings—how cells use checkpoints, backup systems and clever defenses to keep people alive. He also addresses how cells, and bodies, eventually expire.

Wolpert delves into the details of DNA and other genetic material, contrasting complicated networks (each human cell houses about 30,000 genes) with simpler ones (the German measles virus has just three genes). Genes serve as blueprints for assembling proteins, which Wolpert rightfully dubs the “wizard machines” of cells. He describes how free-floating proteins bump into thousands of molecules in a cell every second before finally attaching to a specific site on a specific molecule.

But the book goes beyond this basic look at cells to describe the specific roles that different kinds of cells play in body processes. Wolpert takes a magnifying glass to reproduction, immunity and nerve development, for example. Turning to the negative side, he explores the aberrant cell growth known as cancer.

Throughout, Wolpert uses straightforward language and helpful imagery. He likens the genetic language of a cell to Morse code. And to illuminate cell division, or mitosis, he describes tying a string around a balloon and pulling to constrict it into two. As such, the book doesn’t read like a textbook, but it could certainly serve as one.

W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 240 p., $24.95.