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Noted science historian Elof Carlson traces how the idea of mutation has changed in six generations

Today, most scientists use the term “mutation” to describe a change in an individual gene - more precisely a minute alteration of its DNA. But the term has also achieved a powerful presence in popular culture, to describe a process by which individuals gain exceptional, often malign, characteristics. The idea of mutation has changed considerably since Darwin introduced the theory of evolution by natural selection and in his new book Mutation: The History of an Idea from Darwin to Genomics, geneticist and historian Elof Axel Carlson explores six generations of mutation research, providing the background—the people, the science, and the ideas—for this biological journey. “The idea of mutation” says Carlson, “is based on our observation that everything changes over time.” In the life sciences, this observation is the foundation of evolutionary biology and also a major part of genetics. But Carlson argues that evolution is also characteristic of ideas or concepts. “We are limited by the terminology and ideas of the generation in which we grow up, and, as new findings occur, the vocabulary changes to accommodate concepts and data derived from new tools and approaches.”

After exploring Darwin’s and Francis Galton’s concepts of mutation, Carlson shows how the 1900 rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s experiments led to a discontinuous model of evolution by mutation and how cytological investigations led to the chromosome theory of heredity of classical genetics in which there was random mutation in genes. Carlson details how Mendelian and biometric approaches to heredity and evolution were closely tied and how induction of mutations by radiation and chemical mutagens led to biochemical investigations of gene action, shifting attention to the chemistry of the gene. The interpretation of the gene as DNA and the deciphering of the genetic code then gave rise to molecular interpretations of mutation, and eventually the Human Genome Project. This molecular view of mutation impacted evolutionary biology, population genetics, commercial development of plants and animals, and human genetics.

In addition to surveying the idea of mutation in the scientific world, Dr. Carlson also shows that a “somewhat different sense of the term mutation prevails among the general public.” This thread is explored in terms of eugenics, radiation, politics, medicine, and the context of today’s complex technologies.

Elizabeth Powers, Book Marketing and Sales Account Manager
powerse@cshl.edu ; 516-422-4101

About the book:
Mutation: The History of an Idea from Darwin to Genomics was written by Elof Axel Carlson, Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (©2011). It is available in hardcover (978-1-936113-30-9). The book is 164 pages in length and has a trim size of 6 x 9 inches. For more information, see www.cshlpress.com/link/mutation.htm

About the author:
Elof Axel Carlson is an American geneticist and noted historian of science. Dr. Carlson earned his B.A. from New York University (1953), and his Ph.D. in zoology from Indiana University under the mentorship of Hermann Joseph Muller (1958). Dr. Carlson is a past recipient of the E. Harris Harbison Award for excellence in teaching given by the Danforth Foundation. He has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota, San Diego State University, and Tougaloo College. He was also a McMurrin Visiting Professor at the University of Utah. He is a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and currently a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University.

Other books by Elof Carlson published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press are:
Neither Gods nor Beasts: How Science Is Changing Who We Think We Are ©2008
Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt: Science and the Battle for Public Trust ©2006
Mendel’s Legacy: The Origin of Classical Genetics ©2004
The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea ©2001

About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press:
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is an internationally renowned publisher of books, journals, and electronic media, located on Long Island, New York. Since 1933, CSHL Press has furthered the advance and spread of scientific knowledge in all areas of genetics and molecular biology, including cancer biology, plant science, bioinformatics, and neurobiology. The Press is a division of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an innovator in life science research and the education of scientists, students, and the public. For more information, visit www.cshlpress.com.

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