Big news about the genome

Genes aren’t the discrete little self-contained dots of biological information they were thought to be, says a worldwide study of human DNA. Scientists all over the world have for three years been digging deeper into the genome, and BIG stuff is afoot in the bioscience field.

This report in the Washington Post says results of this study label previous conclusions about human genetic material as simplistic. “DNA letters revealed to great fanfare by the $3 billion Human Genome Project in 2003 was but a skeletal version of the human construction manual.”

The new efforts reveal that all kinds of molecular code previously thought to be “junk” isn’t extraneous at all but is instead actively interacting in the form of ordering, splicing, and silencing mechanisms. They think, now, that a predisposition to disease may not be in the genes themselves but in the stuff in between.

Good. This study comes just in time to derail the looming ghoulish specter of humans using genetic engineering to justify killing off people when their individual genes look broken. So now we know it’s not that simple.

But wait a minute… Later in the story we read this:

“The expectation was that many of the most active DNA sequences in humans
would be prevalent in other mammals, too, because evolution tends to save and
reuse what works best. But more than half were not found in other creatures,
which suggests they may not be that important in people, either…”

Huh? Because other creatures don’t have this material means it’s useless? Isn’t this whole study about how we completely overlooked massive amounts of information in our 2003 “definitive” map of the 3 billion pieces of code in the genome?

Instead of concluding that what we don’t understand means nothing, we need to find the same humility that quantum physicists come to when they admit that they can find nothing but air between the smallest non-observable particles they’ve discovered and no explanation for the “miraculous” automatic mirror actions of pairs that are huge distances apart.

Like a tiny baby in a crib, we can see the mattress, the bars, the walls and floor of the room we inhabit, and we can glimpse the hall through the doorway. Until we get beyond that space, though, we tend to believe that all we see is all there is. But once we see other doorways, we rightly begin to imagine the world of possibilities beyond.