Review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Song of the Cell: Life is cell deep

Pulitzer Prize-winning oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee takes readers on an inward journey to discover the building blocks and their place in the human body

November 18, 2022 09:01 am | Updated November 19, 2022 06:30 pm IST

Every cell of our body tells its own story. A clump of long, striated cells responds to a regular electric pulse that makes our heartbeat. Our variously shaped muscles help us move. Cells that trap minerals make our bones. Our gut cells partner with microbes and together they digest our food, giving us our ‘gut feeling’ or even the Monday-morning blues. Each cell is incredible in its own way. They emerge from a singular source, but genes programme them to take different trajectories and lifecycles.

At any given moment, no matter what we may do, our cells are never at rest. They do a million things, in sync with one another: breathing, circulating, digesting, cleaning, making and breaking components, and so on. A legion of scientists and medical practitioners dissect tissues and hunch over microscopes and find new cells. Our journey inward into our organs, tissues, and cells may have only just begun. They are, as Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee says, “life within a life” in his new book, The Song of the Cell.

How nature shapes the body

In The Song, Mukherjee takes us on an inward journey, navigating through organs and tissues, and arriving at the cells that make them. He divides his cellular symphony into five movements, each with its own cadence. In part one, ‘The Healing Cell’ tells us how cells like platelets and antibodies soothe and heal us. Part two, ‘The Discerning Cell’, speaks about the intelligence of our immune system and how this wisdom gets passed down. ‘The Contemplating Cell’ delves into the power of response and stimulus of the neuron. ‘The Renewing Cell’ talks about the power of the cells and explores how we could use stem cells to regenerate and heal. The final rondo circles back to Dr. Mukherjee’s pet peeve, cancer and accelerated cell death. He labels it, ‘The Selfish Cell’. He gently guides the reader to understand their physical and functional roles. In doing so, he builds a deep appreciation of the reader of the unexpected, moving ways in which nature shapes us. As you reach the last pages of the book, the frantic pace of the symphony mellows and ends like Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’. Dr. Mukherjee presents the current understanding (or lack of it) of the function and dysfunction of cells and navigates through complex questions and implications for the future of medicine. He carefully weighs in on everything dealing with CRISPR, stem cell research, immunotherapy, designer babies, and future pandemics.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s oeuvre blends history, science, and culture. 

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s oeuvre blends history, science, and culture.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

His oeuvre blends history, science, and culture, showing the work of passion and wit of a sublime writer with an underpinning of compassion of a doctor and researcher who sees suffering and disease day after day.

The grandness of all things small

Dr. Mukherjee provides a view of something so grand, complex, and diverse, of something so small and infinitesimal. As a non-fiction writer myself, one relishes seeing if Dr. Mukherjee succeeds in how he paints the large canvas he has cut, a topic as vast as life itself. I particularly admire the way he weaves the history of science and links it to innovative science. He is humble and writes with compassion, often with the admiration of pioneers like Leeuwenhoek, Hooke, Metchnikoff, Virchow, and others.

The Song completes Dr. Mukherjee’s journey, which began as an oncologist (a period he has written about in his phenomenal debut, The Emperor of All Maladies, 2010). Then, as a researcher, in his superb follow-up (The Gene, 2016), he questions the role of genes, genetics, and nature in how they fashion the heredity of diseases and cancers; family histories and mental health; and human well-being. The Emperor of All Maladies was a gut-wrenching book, which offered little hope of finding a durable cure for chronic and emerging cancers. The Gene, on the other hand, offered a deep understanding of how all cells, organs, and life histories get dictated by a few coiled strands we call DNA (or RNA, if a virus had taken over our cells). In The Song, he tackles the very basis of what makes life, the cell.

This is a complex story well told. It is magisterial and yet humbles the reader about the immense grandness of the minutiae of the natural world. The Song of the Cell is yet another virtuoso performance by the good doctor.

The Song of the Cell; Siddhartha Mukherjee, Allen Lane, ₹799.

The reviewer is a biochemist and natural history writer whose latest book is Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses.

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