Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

Author(s): Matthew Cobb

Mathematics & Science | Staff Picks

Everyone has heard of the story of DNA as the story of Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin, but knowing the structure of DNA was only a part of a greater struggle to understand life's secrets. Life's Greatest Secret is the story of the discovery and cracking of the genetic code, the thing that ultimately enables a spiraling molecule to give rise to the life that exists all around us. This great scientific breakthrough has had farreaching consequences for how we understand ourselves and our place in the natural world, and for how we might take control of our (and life's) future. Life's Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters--mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists--who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or "junk DNA" was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobb's telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone who'd like to explore those questions for themselves.

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It is a surprise that the story of “life’s greatest secret” is only now being fully told nearly 50 years after the genetic code was cracked. While DNA’s double helix and the names James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin are legendary, how many people have heard of Marshall Nirenberg, Severo Ochoa and Har Gobind Khorana? These were the men who, following the discovery of the double helix in 1953, were largely responsible for working out the code – the set of rules by which the information within DNA controls the assembly and regulation of all the proteins in living cells.


As Cobb writes, it was a glorious endeavour on a par with the work of Galileo, Darwin and Einstein. Now that genomic information is so complex that only computers can make sense of it, to read of gifted but fallible human beings wrestling with this staggeringly fundamental question inspires awe, gratitude and a good helping of nostalgia.

- Peter Forbes, The Guardian

Matthew Cobb is a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, where he works on insects and on the history of science. He earned his BA in Psychology at the University of Sheffield, as well as his PhD there, in Psychology and Genetics. He is the translator of Michel Morange's History of Molecular Biology and the author of Generation (known as The Egg and Sperm Race, in the UK).

1. Genes before DNA 2. Information is everywhere 3. The transformation of genes 4. A slow revolution 5. The age of control 6. The double helix 7. Genetic information 8. The central dogma 9. Enzyme cybernetics 10. Enter the outsiders 11. The race Update 12. Surprises and sequences 13. The central dogma revisited 14. Brave new world 15. Origins and meanings Conclusion

General Fields

  • : 9780465062676
  • : Basic Books
  • : Basic Books
  • : July 2015
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Matthew Cobb
  • : Hardback
  • : 464