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The Ultimate Code

2011 October 30
DNA

Digeratti are an unusual bunch.  Branded with distinctive facial hair configurations and fueled by caffeine, they run around coding, pitching, inventing and envisioning a bold new future.

It’s hard to imagine any context in which they could be called slow.  Yet, they move at a snail’s pace compared to those seeking to master the ultimate code:  DNA.

Since the existence of the code itself was discovered in 1953, it has heralded a new age in life sciences.  It enabled us to approach questions of nature and nurture, genetic disease, cancer and others in a systematic way.  More recently, genetics and information technology have joined forces to propel innovation forward at a mind-blowing pace.

Watson and Crick

When James Watson and Francis Crick published their article in the scientific journal Nature, it could have easily  gone unnoticed.  It was brief, only a page long and bore the innocuous title of, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”  Nothing jumped out as being groundbreaking.

Ironically, the only thing to indicate something was afoot was a particularly cheeky sentence near the end:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism of the genetic material.

A copying mechanism.  In other words, a code and a code of life for that matter.  A stream of information written in a language common to everything from the most basic microscopic organism to each one of us.  Before their article, the existence of such a code was a mere suspicion, but on that day it became a cold hard fact.

However, it remained a language we could not speak or understand.  It was as if we discovered an alien life form of supreme interest, but could find no way to communicate with it.

The Code Revealed

The discovery of the code was just the first surprise.  The second was how simple it was. The DNA bases were translated into amino acids which formed proteins.  That was it. All of life’s secrets encapsulated in just four letters organized into words three letters long, forming sentences ranging from a handful of syllables to thousands.

What made it work is the universality of proteins, which can be used to form tissues in our organs or delivery mechanisms for important elements, (such as iron in hemoglobin) or enzymes which drive chemical reactions.  Whatever our bodies do, proteins are at the center and the recipes for them are encapsulated in the order of our DNA’s base pairs.

Of course, the system isn’t perfect.  There is an almost infinitesimally small error rate that, in the context of how often DNA is copied, is significant.  Genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and Sickle Cell anemia, are caused by such errors.  The scourge of modern medicine, cancer, is also due to damaged genes.

Errors aren’t always bad though.  Every once in a while we get a happy accident and an mix-up in genetic copying can result in something useful.  According to the natural process of selection, these genes then get copied more often.  Evolution, therefore, is largely the result of the accumulation of lucky mistakes.

Bioinformatics

True simplicity is never simple.  While the genetic code is not complex, it is also very, very long (over 3 billion letters in the human genome) and contains complex interactions between elements.  It’s often hard to tell where one gene begins and another ends.

When the international community got together to form the Human Genome Project in order to finally map our genes, it took over 13 years and $3 billion.  Mapping however, was just the start.

The really exciting stuff has just begun.   Biologists have created ingenious short-cuts and that, along with advances in computer technology, is moving the new field of bioinformatics ahead at a blistering pace.

The applications of the technology are moving just as fast.  Here’s just some of what’s in store:

Personal Genomes: As the chart above shows, it won’t be long before the cost of getting a genome sequenced will fall under $1000 or less than a decent TV set.  Pretty soon after, it won’t cost any more than a simple blood test. Doctors will be able to tailor treatments to individual body chemistry.

Gene Therapy: Many ailments are genetic in nature and replacing defective genes will cure many chronic and previously incurable diseases.  It will be done through the use of viral vectors, much like software companies release patches to fix bugs in their products.

Cancer:  As noted above, cancer is caused when genes in ordinary cells are damaged. Through genetic sequencing, scientists are quickly gaining an understanding of these errors (especially in the case of the p53 gene) and techniques for targeting harmful genetic sequences are already in the works.

Within the next 20 years, current treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy will seem as barbaric as leeches and bloodletting.

The Moral Dilemma

The news isn’t all good.  Some of it is truly horrifying.  There are already controversies over genetically modified foods, cloning and designer children.  It won’t be long before we have cottage industries built up around cosmetic gene therapy, terrorists sequencing “super bugs” and other issues that we can’t even imagine yet.

As I wrote in a previous post, technology gives us more options and, inevitably, we won’t like some of the paths that society takes.  Nevertheless, the choices are ours to make and, technology also gives us the power to solve problems that it itself causes.  So, while there is good cause for concern, there is none for alarm.

Much like astronomy, physics and medicine itself, genomics will shed light on questions long held sacred and some people won’t like the like the answers.  Tough.   After all, nobody has the right to tell one child that he must go to bed hungry or another that he must die of leukemia because of someone else’s overactive moral imagination.

The human genome is truly the ultimate code and unravelling its mysteries will create excitement and wonder, fear and loathing.  Life will go on (and quite a bit longer and more productively than it has before).

- Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013

    Quote: “It won’t be long before we have cottage industries built up around cosmetic gene therapy, terrorists sequencing ‘super bugs’ and other issues that we can’t even imagine yet.”

    For that reason innovation must go hand-in-hand with massive upscaling of advanced behavioural techniques and self-awareness, for example Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-violent Communication method. The more effectively we can communicate and understand each other as a global society, the more constructively we will wield the amazing tools at our disposal.

    Wishing you a happy 2013.

    Best regards,

    Tim

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Tim,

    I see your point, but I’m afraid I disagree. I’ve had the opportunity to live in different cultures and found that even where communication is not an issue (e.g. people have excellent language skills, are well travelled, lived abroad, etc.) people can have some pretty radical views.

    Unfortunate, but true…

    - Greg

    [Reply]

    Tim Reply:

    So you’re saying conflict is inevitable?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Unfortunately, it seems so, although there is much less conflict then there used to be, so I guess there is some hope. Oil under $20 would help tremendously.

    - Greg

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