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The Violinist's Thumb

by Sam Kean

11:45am, July 13, 2012

Early in the 20th century, German biologist Hans Spemann separated two cells of a salamander zygote using a strand of his daughter’s hair. His experiment produced two fully formed amphibians, demonstrating that each cell contains the full genetic blueprint to build a living thing, not the partial instructions that scientists had previously supposed.

Why he used the child’s hair isn’t clear, science writer Kean notes, but “probably the baby’s hair was finer.”

In Kean’s history of DNA, each chapter is loosely organized to address questions about humans’ genetic past and future. He pays tribute to genetics’ key players and major milestones, including Watson and Crick, Mendel and the researchers who raced to draw up the human blueprint (“blitzkrieg sequencing,” Kean calls it) during the Human Genome Project.

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