The Compatibility Gene: How the body recognises friend and foe

Daniel M Davis explores the immune system and how a handful of scientists discovered how cells distinguish between friend and foe – and might act as match-maker

Gene

This book has something of a misleading title. It suggests something pre-ordained about our favoured sexual partners but the titular gene is related to tissues not human so hold on to your eHarmony account a little longer.

(Although the controversial “T-shirt smell” experiment does make an appearance surrounded by a bodyguard of caveats and Davis does try to figure out whether he was lucky or destined to meet his wife.)

At its best, near the beginning of this book, Davis – a professor at Imperial College London at 35 – tells the fascinating and little-known story of immunology.

How a few ground-breaking scientists figured out how the body worked out which tiny invaders to welcome and which to attack. How the body can respond immediately to molecules it has never encountered but refrains from assaulting a foetus.

The Compatibility Gene

One such pioneer was Peter Medawar. He should be a hero of British science alongside the likes of Francis Crick but, I suspect, is little celebrated now beyond biologists.

The Nobel Prize winner had all the attributes of a true eccentric genius and found his calling when during the Battle of Britain a plane crashed near his home, leaving the pilot with horrendous burns.

His advice was sought and he recognised that skin grafts were the answer although they almost always failed which, he discovered, was an immunological reaction. This triggered an exploration of tolerance that ultimately made all transplants possible.

Davis tells tales of the pioneers with admiration and elegance, building the reader’s interest so that they can chomp through the tougher meat that follows.

Because theories of self and non-self, blood types, T-cells, grooves and proteins with names like strong Google passwords are knotty and challenging.

The reward for those who stay the course is a renewed sense of awe for the unthinking efficiency and problem-solving brilliance of natural processes.

The more we know, the more we find complexities which must look like a feast of opportunity for the likes the author and his colleagues, who have several lifetimes of work yet to do to get to grips with these busy wee warriors.

The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M Davis | Published by Allen Lane | ★★★✩✩

Giles BroadbentThe Compatibility Gene: How the body recognises friend and foe

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