Replica of Neanderthal skull
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The Natural History Museum London
Replica of Neanderthal skull

Weekend Reading: The Long Road to Ancient DNA, and Gene-Stealing Ferns

I’ve been traveling again this week, which makes blogging a challenge. But I still can still offer a couple pieces of reading for your weekend diversion.

–Over the years, I’ve written many articles about the amazing work of Svante Paabo, who has pioneered methods for salvaging ancient DNA from fossils. (Here’s my most recent piece, on the entire genome of a Neanderthal extracted from a toe bone.)

The New York Times Book Review asked me to read Paabo’s new memoir, Neanderthal Man. Here’s my review. As I note in the piece, memoirs by scientists are a tricky genre. Very often, scientists want to delve into fine detail about their research, while tossing off frustratingly fragmented bits about their personal lives. As I was reading Neanderthal Man and getting a bit frustrated by fleeting references to a secret father and such, I asked people on Twitter about their favorite memoir by a scientist. I Storified the ensuing conversation here.

–From time to time, genes jump from one species of plant to another. For my “Matter” column this week in the New York Times, I look at how a jumping gene helped ferns thrive in the shady forests of the Mesozoic–and today. I think these cases of horizontal gene transfer are important not just for what it tells us about how life got to be the way it is today, but also for what it can tell us about our artificial transfer of genes from species to species. It’s simply not true that genes moving between species is “unnatural,” and therefore automatically evil. Is such an engineered organism dangerous? That’s a question that we have to tackle case by case, without mismatched notions of nature getting in the way.