Reason for a New Age

Understanding Genes

Posted by publius2point0 on 2011/01/02


There’s a tendency for people to think and for the media to report that discovering all of the inherited traits in the world is in simply finding the gene responsible and changing it to a better one. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that this idea is, at least 99% of the time, going to be incorrect.

Think of DNA as being like a blueprint for a house. If I look at that blueprint, what part do I check to see what level of earthquake the house could withstand? What part do I look at to see if there will be proper ventilation?

There’s a wide difference between a blueprint and a set of requirements. The set of requirements for a house might be something like:

1) Level of earthquake which the house can withstand?
6

2) Number of years that the roof can go without being replaced?
20

3) Direction that the front door must be facing?
South

With a set of requirements like this, it would be easy to locate where the choice is and toggle it. If you want a stronger roof, you find item #2 and change it to a higher number. But with nothing more than a set of requirements, you could hand two architects the same document and receive entirely different designs. Only if your list of items was so long as to not require an architect would you have any hope of getting the same result, and at that point you’re looking at a blueprint, not a requirements sheet. A requirements sheet requires a third party who can fill in the gaps with some amount of intellect and basic understanding of what a house is and what the basics of such a structure are. DNA does not work like that. Firstly, if it did then twins would not particularly look like one another. And secondly, if it did, an egg would not be able to turn into a chicken. You wouldn’t be able to stick a strand of DNA in a soup of food, and have it be able to fully construct a full, complex structure all on its own. All of the necessary information for a full creature must be in there. Simply understanding that DNA works to create a creature via a series of chemical reactions which build on one another — like a complex Rube Goldberg machine of chemistry — tells you that you’re looking at the full blueprint when you see a strand of DNA.

The positive side of this is, as I pointed out in a previous blog, that you don’t need to understand how DNA works to be able to build a human or any other creature. So long as you can replicate the chemistry in a virtual environment, you just need to insert the initial seed and it will grow all on its own. But the negative side is, of course, that until you do so, there is unlikely to be any way to understand what any part of blueprint actually means in a real sense. If you wanted to know how well a house would last in an earthquake, you would have to build it in a simulator and then shake the virtual world. After doing this often enough with enough houses, you might start to understand what the key design choices were that work in different houses and postulate specific, targeted recommendations for changes. But there won’t be any guarantee that the reason for which any two houses did better than others would be the same. One might last because it is shorter and wider, while another does better because it is made with flexible materials.

Why do some people live longer than others? There’s no particular guarantee that there’s any shared link between any two centenarians for having successfully lived to that point. It’s unlikely that somewhere there’s a couple of molecules which encode a number like “100” or “150”. It’s all about how the overall design worked out for lasting a long time. There won’t be a section for IQ, height, nor any other hard number that we can add a few digits to. We need to understand the whole thing.

To be certain, there will be sections of our DNA which map to the obvious. If I look at a blueprint, I can probably figure out how wide and deep the eventual house will be. For DNA, there is probably items of equal obviousness. Some of these may be medically relevant and we’ll be able to use gene therapy or some other means to fix just that small, target-able section of DNA.

For most things, unfortunately, we will have to wait.

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One Response to “Understanding Genes”

  1. Roberta said

    Actually, concerning living to a very old age, I was just reading in Discover Magazine the other day that there have been DNA testing among centigenarians and family members of centigenarians and they have found that there is a ‘gene variant’ among people who make it to age 100.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/07/100701-boston-university-health-genes-live-100-longevity-genetic-science/

    In other words, it’s not that centigenarians have a ‘gene,’ per se, that is somehow different than other people, but that they have some gene variants that predispose them to living a long, old-age-related, disease-free life…until about the age of 93. Of course, that all depends on their environment and other issues like terrible accidents, or catching a horrible disease; otherwise, they seem to be able to stave off the normal old-age type of infirmaties until well into their nineties. And, it runs in families. The same gene variants can be found in certain young family members of those centigenarians.

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