Cover image for Tears of the cheetah : and other tales from the genetic frontier
Tears of the cheetah : and other tales from the genetic frontier
O'Brien, Stephen J.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xiv, 287 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QH432 .O276 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The history of life on Earth is dominated by extinction events so numerous that over 99.9% of the species ever to have existed are gone forever. If animals could talk, we would ask them to recall their own ancestries, in particular the secrets as to how they avoided almost inevitable annihilation in the face of daily assaults by predators, climactic cataclysms, deadly infections and innate diseases.
In "Tears of the Cheetah," medical geneticist and conservationist Stephen J. O'Brien narrates fast-moving science adventure stories that explore the mysteries of survival among the earth's most endangered and beloved wildlife. Here we uncover the secret histories of exotic species such as Indonesian orangutans, humpback whales, and the imperiled cheetah-the world's fastest animal which nonetheless cannot escape its own genetic weaknesses.
Among these genetic detective stories we also discover how the Serengeti lions have lived with FIV (the feline version of HIV), where giant pandas really come from, how bold genetic action pulled the Florida panther from the edge of extinction, how the survivors of the medieval Black Death passed on a genetic gift to their descendents, and how mapping the genome of the domestic cat solved a murder case in Canada.
With each riveting account of animal resilience and adaptation, a remarkable parallel in human medicine is drawn, adding yet another rationale for species conservation-mining their genomes for cures to our own fatal diseases. "Tears of the Cheetah" offers a fascinating glimpse of the insight gained when geneticists venutre into the wild.

Author Notes

Dr. Stephen J. O'Brien is head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institutes, National Institutes of Health. Dr. O'Brien is internationally recognized for his research contributions in human and animal genetics, evolutionary biology, retrovirology, and species conservation. In collaboration with his students, fellows, and colleagues he has researched areas as diverse as mapping the genome of the cat, to the discovery of CCR5-?32, the first human gene shown to block infection by HIV among its carriers. Dr. O'Brien is the author or co-author of over 500 scientific articles that have appeared widely in National Geographic, Scientific American, Nature and Science .

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Presenting his lab's genetic work on endangered species, O'Brien delves into considerable but not overwhelming technical detail. In part because he's a skillful narrator, relating how his expertise was sought to solve mysteries about the lion, the panda, and the humpback whale, O'Brien's exploration of the genetic landscape of a particular species is marvelously revelatory of its history. O'Brien and his colleagues at the National Cancer Institute are able to see near-extinction events of the past in various segments of DNA that have descended to the present: the cheetah, for example, came close to dying out 12,000 years ago. A species' episodes of disease and inbreeding are recorded in the genes O'Brien discusses, information crucial to preservation efforts--even if, as the author relates of his work on the Florida panther, there is resistance to accepting the information within the conservation community. Molecular biology can be difficult to absorb, but not when a clear expositor such as O'Brien has such good stories to tell. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The 14 firsthand evolutionary yarns collected here are the equivalent of genomic Aesop's fables. By turns passionate, understated, unexpectedly literate and historically astute, O'Brien, head of the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, is a breath of fresh air: he's written a genetics book that neither probes the ambiguous legacy of genetic engineering nor seeks to entice us with yet another last-word account of the race to map the human genome-and judiciously dispensing with jargon wherever possible, O'Brien's a smooth read as well. The author does not tell us the genetic fable of how the leopard got its spots, but he comes close. The title story recounts his research team's startling discovery of near-complete genetic uniformity among cheetahs, derived possibly from a brush with extinction that forced inbreeding. O'Brien enters a century-old debate on the taxonomy of the endangered panda, whether it belongs to the bear or the raccoon family: a little molecular-genetic detective work revealed it to be either, depending on the species (there is actually more than one). He reads and learns from the genetic histories of the humpback whale and other exotic species. An underlying theme of the book is how these parables illuminate human medicine-how, for example, insights into cat immunodeficiency could lead to a cure for AIDS; another could be said to be self-congratulation for his articles in Nature, his textbook citations and press clippings. But this is only a minor irritation. O'Brien is an explorer of the first order, intrepid and curious. His accomplishments, including this modest book, are considerable. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved