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The Genetic Code, by Isaac Asimov

Thomas H. Jukes

Vol. 51, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 1963)

THE GENETIC CODE, by Isaac Asimov; 181 pages; $3.95; The Orion Press, 1962.

This book contains a great deal of interesting general discussion of biology, biochemistry, and elementary organic chemistry. This is rather a large number of subjects to be explored in 181 pages.

The author evidently believes that his readers will have some difficulty in pronouncing even short chemical words, so these have been phoneticized, as in the following examples; enzyme (en’ zime), carboxyl (kahr-bok’ sil), amide (am’ ide); benzene (ben-zeen’).

Most of the book is an introduction to the chemistry of living cells rather than a description of the genetic code. On page 135 the third of the three possible hydrogen bonds between guanine and cytosine has been omitted, and the hydrogens have been omitted from all hydrogen bonds, which seems rather paradoxical. A serious mistake is on page 167 where the statement is made “... 64 triplets for 22 amino acids.” This is not a typographical error because the author again, on page 71, is unable to concede that 20 amino acids are involved in protein synthesis, and prefers to “stick to twenty-two,” which seriously interferes with the possibility of correlating his views with current approaches to the genetic code.

Biologist Thomas Jukes (1906–1999) spent the majority of his career at the University of California, Berkeley, with stints at UC Davis and at Lederle Laboratories, where his work included research on the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry. Jukes advocated for the teaching of evolution in the schools and against bans on the pesticide DDT. He wrote an article about the latter, which was published in the September–October 1963 issue of American Scientist, as well as numerous other articles and a book, Molecules and Evolution (1966).

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