Tears of the Cheetah The Genetic Secrets of Our Animal Ancestors

Dr. Stephen J. O'Brien

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

The history of life on earth is dominated by extinction events so numerous that more than 99.9 percent 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 helped solve 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 venture into the wild.


Praise for Tears of the Cheetah

"First-rate . . . This is a non-fiction Da Vinci Code for the conservationist."—The Washington Times

Charmingly written . . . [These are] fascinating stories."—The Washington Post

"Tears of the Cheetah is told by O'Brien with such literary mastery that one can hardly lay his book down . . . O'Brien has succeeded in presenting his stories in a simple language that can be understood even by the nonexpert. There is no other book I have read in recent years for which I have learned and enjoyed more."—Ernst Mayr

"Tears of the Cheetah will certainly do a great deal to persuade the lay person that genomics and the mysteries of genetics have immediate and practical application to our lives. I enjoyed the well-told and fast-paced stories."—Richard Leakey, author of Wildlife Wars

"Steve O'Brien is a national treasure. A distinguished molecular biologist studying cancer and AIDS, he is also a dedicated conservationist who wields the tools of recombinant DNA to help protect endangered species. Tears of the Cheetah shows that he's a captivating story teller too. It's Crick and Watson meet The Wild Kingdom!"—Eric Lander, principal scientist and leader of the International Human Genome Project

"This is an authoritative foray into the world of both animal and human genetics, but not a static account of esoteric information. Rather, this is a lively telling of fascinating stories of the personal experiences of the author that illustrate numerous practical applications of the studies of DNA and molecular genetics . . . O'Brien shows us a free-spirited, ever-confident and wide-ranging curiosity evident in his marvelous adventures of three decades of research in mouse, cat, and man. This book will be interesting reading for any student of life."—Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV

"In lively and clear prose, Stephen O'Brien takes us on a fascinating journey through three decades of the application of molecular biology to conservation, and illustrates how these advances can assist in the control of human disease. Highly educational, personal, and exciting, this book will help its readers to understand the golden age of biology that we entered about 50 years ago and its implications for everyone."—Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and author of The Biology of Plants

"A riveting mix of genetics, evolution, wild species, and human health. Stephen O'Brien tells detective stories Conan Doyle would envy."—Thomas Lovejoy, author of The Magnificent Exception

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Dr. Stephen J. O'Brien

  • 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. 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.