Book review: The Genome Odyssey: Medical mysteries and the incredible quest to solve them

The Genome Odyssey by Euan Angus Ashley. Reviewed by Heather Love.

Date published: April 2021

Genome Odyssey

Paperback price: £16.55 (currently hard cover only)

Link to book on Amazon website

Reviewer: Heather Love, PhD Researcher in the Salvesen Mindroom Research Group

Reviewer expertise: Studying for a PhD in Medical Sciences, examining a rare genetic condition which causes epilepsy and intellectual disability

What is the book about and who is it aimed at?

The Genome Odyssey is a pop-sci book with a wide target audience, mainly aimed at those already interested in science and genetics.  Written by Dr Euan Ashley, Professor of Medicine and Genetics at Stanford University, it details recent breakthroughs in human genetics in a semi-autobiographical style, using real case studies as examples.

A brief description of the book.

The book opens with a prologue explaining the fundamentals of genetics – for example, what is DNA, what is a genome, and how do these function and affect us? This provides the reader with the grounding to tackle the more complex concepts which come up in the rest of the book. Dr Ashley describes his own experience of leading the first team to medically interpret a complete human genome, and then outlines several novel case studies where genomics was used successfully to diagnose or treat the person affected.

Is the content in line with best practice or research evidence?

Due to the focus on physical genetic disease, the emphasis of the book is on finding cures for these conditions, or ‘solving’ the mystery of these unusual conditions as in the title. There is also some discussion of the ethics of genetic therapy and gene editing, but not in the context of learning difficulties or intellectual disability. This is a result of the text being based on the author’s own experiences and medical specialisation, rather than deliberate exclusion, but readers should still be aware of this.  

Although not cited in-text, the material is well-referenced, including personal communications and recordings. Permission was given for use of the case studies described in the books. The patient contribution is recognised and addressed sensitively, both in the main text of the book and the acknowledgements, and the treatment of the case studies is respectful.

Would this book be helpful for its target reader?

The book is aimed at a very general audience. The publisher claims a reading age of 8 years and up; while this may be optimistic, it is easily read without being patronising. It should be noted that this book does not cover neurodiversity, NDDs or learning disabilities of any kind, instead focusing on ‘physical’ disorders like heart disease and spinal muscular atrophy.

However, while the content is not directly applicable when considering learning difficulties alone, this book is useful for a more general understanding of genetic disorders, and may be relevant to someone with a genetic condition or their carer. It outlines some of the major hurdles of identifying and treating genetic disorders, and the timeline of progress clearly illustrates how rapidly this field has developed. Dr Ashley breaks down complex concepts and uses relevant metaphors to allow them to be grasped more easily. In particular, he does a good job of explaining why some genetic conditions are much more easily treated than others. The book also provides wider context of how diagnosis and treatment fits into the academic and business world, which is often poorly communicated.

What is your final, overall opinion on the book?

Overall, The Genome Odyssey is an enjoyable, well-structured read which refrains from talking down to its audience. While it does not directly address learning difficulties, it provides an accessible introduction to key concepts in genetics, and insight into the process of diagnosing and understanding genetic conditions.