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Scientists and Philosophers Find That ‘Gene’ Has a Multitude of Meanings

Natalie Angier

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Evelyn Fox Keller, left, a science historian, calls the language of molecular biology “historical baggage,” while Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute says he is not worried about any confusion that may arise in references to “genes.”

I owe an apology to my genes. For years I offhandedly blamed them for certain personal defects conventionally associated with one’s hereditary starter pack — my Graves’ autoimmune disease, for example, or my hair, which looks like the fibers left behind on the rim of an aspirin bottle after the cotton ball has been removed, only wispier.

Now it turns out that genes, per se, are simply too feeble to accept responsibility for much of anything. By the traditional definition, genes are those lineups of DNA letters that serve as instructions for piecing together the body’s proteins, and, I’m sorry, but the closer we look, the less instructive they seem, less a “blueprint for life” than one of those disappointing two-page Basic Setup booklets that comes with your computer, tells you where to plug it in and then directs you to a Web site for more information.

Scientists have learned that the canonical “genes” account for an embarrassingly tiny part of the human genome: maybe 1 percent of the three billion paired subunits of DNA that are stuffed into nearly every cell of the body qualify as indisputable protein codes. Scientists are also learning that many of the gene-free regions of our DNA are far more loquacious than previously believed, far more willing to express themselves in ways that have nothing to do with protein manufacture.

In fact, I can’t even make the easy linguistic transition from blaming my genes to blaming my whole DNA, because it’s not just about DNA anymore. It’s also about DNA’s chemical cousin RNA, doing complicated things it wasn’t supposed to do. Not long ago, RNA was seen as a bureaucrat, the middle molecule between a gene and a protein, as exemplified by the tidy aphorism, “DNA makes RNA makes protein.” Now we find cases of short clips of RNA acting like DNA, transmitting genetic secrets to the next generation directly, without bothering to ask permission. We find cases of RNA acting like a protein, catalyzing chemical reactions, pushing other molecules around or tearing them down. RNA is like the vice presidency: it’s executive, it’s legislative, it’s furtive.

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Posted: 13-Nov-2008



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