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Since the human genome was first sequenced, popular science has dictated that genes act as a blueprint for life — but the reality, experts are now arguing, is much more complex and beautiful.
In a new book titled “How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology,” British science writer and author Phillip Ball writes that the modern conception of genes as hard-and-fast cogs in the machine of life doesn’t at all jive with what geneticists have learned in the intervening years: that life is a messy mystery, and the genetics encoding it are its enigmatic and chaotic instruments.
In a review of the book published by the journal Nature, where Ball happens to be a longtime editor, decorated British biologist Denis Noble quoted his fellow science writer as saying that the concept of life as a machine is a “lazy metaphor.”
Instead, as both writers assert, there’s a lot of “fuzziness and imprecision” in the way genes work. Scientists now believe, for instance, that up to 70 percent of protein domains, or the strings of amino acids on the ladder steps of DNA, could be disordered, omeaning they act in diverse and surprising ways that often stump even expert scientists.
That disordering makes proteins “versatile communicators,” Ball insists — but also makes them complicated to pin down in the black-and-white thinking of genetics as a “blueprint” for life.
In one telling example, Noble noted that there are nearly 300 genes indicating a risk for schizophrenia, which throws water in the face of a simplistic conception of genetic risk for mental illness. Enter the old nature versus nurture argument, but with a twist: everything from maternal diet to whether a given person lives in an area with significant pollution as environmental risk factors for the disorder, and you start to see that gene expression has no hard and fast switch.
Perceptions of biology don’t need to be radically shifted, both Ball and Noble contend. Rather, scientists need to help the public understand that genes are not simply one thing or another, but ever-changing parts of what makes life so fascinating.
Ultimately, as Noble quotes Ball, “we are at the beginning of a profound rethinking of how life works.”
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