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February 3, 1989

Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize the Human Gene

Author Affiliations

Office of Technology Assessment Washington, DC

Office of Technology Assessment Washington, DC

JAMA. 1989;261(5):772-773. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03420050124056

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Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, by Natalie Angier, 394 pp, $19.95, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.  The quest for Nobel gold looms large in two books by science journalists that capture the rough and tumble world of molecular biology in the 1980s. Stephen Hall's Invisible Frontiers is a terrific book with a somewhat misleading title; Natalie Angier's Natural Obsessions is a tantalizing but marred work. Angier's work is widely available and well marketed; Hall's is harder to find but well worth the search. Each book describes the brutal intellectual darwinism that dominates the high-stakes world of molecular genetics research.Stephen Hall tells the story of the race (more accurately, the many component races) to clone the insulin gene and get bacteria to produce the insulin peptide. The story includes the genesis of Genentech and Biogen (prominent new biotechnology companies), illustrates the breakneck pace of modern molecular biology, and graphically