Chromosome 8

by Peter Holt

(good; ~30th percentile for SciThri genre)

Year published: 2005
Category: science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (modified from the jacket flap):

Human DNA is the product of evolution, mutated and reprogrammed across eons. But fragments of primordial instructions remain in every cell; what if they could be reactivated?

Biologist Marcus Oden and his geologist friend Nick Kondos are the Ocean Sciences Institute, a shabby pair of adventurers working out of a battered seaplane in the South Pacific. Marcus is looking for more than answers to scientific questions; he also hunts for his wife, who was lost at sea in the region years ago.

On a remote pair of Polynesian islands, Marcus and Nick attempt to rescue a lost submersible but instead find themselves entangled in a violent native revolution seeking the return of traditional gods and culture. Meanwhile, bizarre tales of land animals living in the sea turn into an alarming reality linked to a scientific genius hiding in his lab on one of the islands. The course of human evolution is about to be changed—if the species survives.


Chromosome 8 is billed as being “in the tradition of Clive Cussler and Michael Crichton.” This is definitely true. Our hero, Marcus Oden, bears a strong resemblance to Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. Marcus is an extraordinary diver, pilot, and all-around adventurer with a witty retort at hand whenever facing death (which is often).

Marcus and his sidekick Nick are summoned to rescue a deep-sea submersible carrying an acquaintance who might be Marcus’ girlfriend, if he weren’t completely obsessed with finding his dead wife. Much underwater derring-do takes place, and when the submersible is pulled to the surface, the most unimaginable thing is found inside: nothing.

Marcus and Nick hang out on the island and the reader learns of the brewing unrest among natives bent on restoring old religious traditions and wiping away Western influences—and killing Westerners. But they can’t leave, because Marcus finds evidence that his wife’s boat went down in waters nearby.

Meanwhile, another plot line is woven on the neighboring island, where a medical scientist has risked everything to save his daughter’s life. MILD SPOILER ALERT: to heal her damaged lungs, he’s turned her into a fish by activating ancient genes for gill development. Naturally father and daughter are happier hiding out on a remote desert island, but together they’re still working on the molecular biology of the DNA on chromosome 8. The daughter, Katya, veers off on her own with a mad idea to give the whole world the “gift” she has received.

And then things go horribly wrong. (This is a thriller, after all.)

Author Peter Holt, a “former molecular biologist who now practices intellectual property law”, knows his science and is obviously a fan of Cussler and Crichton. Elements of Cussler and Crichton are abundant in Chromosome 8. However, the whole enterprise never quite reaches its potential. While no one thing is “wrong” with Holt’s writing or plotting, the book simply isn’t as good as could be. It’s a two-star version of five-star material.

For the reader, this means that big-time fans of Cussler/Crichton will find this book an enjoyable read but it won’t stick with you the way works by the masters would. For readers unfamiliar with the greats, skip this book until you’ve read Raise the Titanic and Jurassic Park at least.

In terms of the science, Chromosome 8 invokes many excellent themes from molecular biology that are absolutely true. However, the author takes extreme liberties to spin these themes into a plot line that ultimately is science fiction; hence the three-biohazard rating.

Themes of interest in this book: Polynesian culture; deep-sea diving; introns; “junk” DNA; promoters; viral gene therapy; evolution and development; lungs and gills

Similar combinations of action/adventure and fantastical science can be found in: books by James Rollins.

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