15 Books about Genetics for National DNA Day

By Emily Pullen, Manager, Reader Services and Engagement
April 21, 2021

April 25th is National DNA Day! While I don't have much expertise or experience in science and medicine, I've always been fascinated by DNA and genetics. And thankfully, there are plenty of really great books that tell compelling stories and that break DNA down into bits (Ts, As, Cs, and Gs) that can be understood by non-experts. More recent news stories will tell you about how the CRISPR gene-editing technology has been used to develop Covid-19 testing and vaccines. 

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The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Presents a history of gene science that examines current debates about gene resequencing, tracing the author's family experiences with mental illness and the contributions of key scientists and philosophers. Mukherjee's other book (also phenomenal), The Emperor of All Maladies, focuses on cancer but also looks at the development of gene therapies as a possible treatment. 

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A science writer and broadcaster with a background in genetics reveals what our genes can tell us about history and how unraveling the human genome has shattered deeply held beliefs about our heritage and identities.

The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level by Jessica Wapner

Discusses the history of a genetic mutation, discovered in 1959, that causes chronic myeloid leukemia, and traces the research and breakthroughs that led to the creation of a drug that makes this once-fatal illness now treatable.

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The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson

Genetic genealogy is a new tool for addressing old and enduring issues related to race. This book explains how cutting-edge DNA-based techniques are being used in myriad ways, including grappling with the unfinished business of slavery: to foster reconciliation, to establish ties with African ancestral homelands, to rethink and sometimes alter citizenship, and to make legal claims for slavery reparations specifically based on ancestry.

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean

An exploration of human DNA and the stories it can tell describes how genes can explain why JFK's skin was bronze, Einstein was a genius, and why people with exceptional thumb flexibility can become world-class violinists. Kean's vibrant storytelling once again makes science entertaining, explaining human history and whimsy while showing how DNA will influence our species' future.

One in a Billion by Mark Johnson and Kathleen Gallagher

A full-length medical narrative by two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists traces the scientific breakthroughs surrounding a Wisconsin youth whose mysterious illness was cured through unprecedented gene sequencing.


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The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson

A portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist explores the impact of James Watson's The Double Helix on her career and how her team's invention of CRISPR technology enabled revolutionary DNA-editing approaches to fighting disease.


Gene Machine by Venki Ramakrishnan

Everyone has heard of DNA. But by itself, DNA is just an inert blueprint for life. It is the ribosome—an enormous molecular machine made up of a million atoms—that makes DNA come to life, turning our genetic code into proteins and therefore into us. This book is an insider account of the race for the structure of the ribosome, a fundamental discovery that both advances our knowledge of all life and could lead to the development of better antibiotics against life-threatening diseases. 


Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA by Erin E. Murphy

We think of DNA forensics as an infallible science that catches the bad guys and exonerates the innocent. But when the science goes rogue, it can lead to a gross miscarriage of justice. Erin Murphy exposes the dark side of forensic DNA testing: crime labs that receive little oversight and produce inconsistent results; prosecutors who push to test smaller and poorer-quality samples, inviting error and bias; law-enforcement officers who compile massive, unregulated, and racially skewed DNA databases; and industry lobbyists who push policies of "stop and spit."


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The Language of Life by Francis S. Collins

Collins presents cutting-edge science for lay readers who want to take control of their medical lives. He discusses cancer, obesity, aging, racial differences, and a host ofother concerns, as well as the medical advances directly attributable to the Human Genome Project. He is also not shy about taking on large political issues: he points out problems with our current health-care system, discusses stem-cell research, and ina cogent commentary, recommends—with caveats—direct-to-consumer DNA testing. He does a superb job of humanizing a complex scientific and medical subject.


DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution by James D. Watson

The Nobel laureate whose pioneering work helped unlock the mystery of DNA's structure charts the greatest scientific journey of our time, from the discovery of the double helix to today's controversies to what the future may hold. Updated to include new findings in gene editing, epigenetics, agricultural chemistry, as well as two entirely new chapters on personal genomics and cancer research.


The Making of the Fittest by Sean B. Carroll

A geneticist discusses the role of DNA in the evolution of life on Earth, explaining how an analysis of DNA reveals a complete record of the events that have shaped each species and how it provides evidence of the validity of the theory of evolution.


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FICTION: Blood World by Chris Mooney

In a world where people with a rare gene are kidnapped for their blood's wonder-cure abilities, an LAPD officer fighting the activities of illegal blood farms is pitted against a madman who has modified healing blood to unstoppable levels.


FICTION: Genesis by Robin Cook

Investigating the suspicious death of a social worker, Chief New York City Medical Examiner Laurie Montgomery makes the controversial decision to use genealogic DNA databases to identify a mysterious killer. 


FICTION: Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas

For fans of World War Z and the Southern Reach Trilogy, a suspenseful oral history commemorating the five-year anniversary of the Pulse - the alien code that hacked the DNA of Earth's population—and the response team who faced the world-changing phenomenon.


Have trouble reading standard print? Many of these titles are available in formats for patrons with print disabilities.

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.