My latest goal is to learn the basics of genetics, which should keep me busy for the next 20 or so years. This complex, intricate, delicately balanced, meticulous process is the force behind heredity, the engine of life. Through genetics we learn the process by which new life is created and that this process is fundamentally orderly and systematic. We learn the elegant simplicity of this orderliness by seeing that life starts from the smallest, simplest units – molecules – to the largest living organism on our planet, a fungus in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon.
From a string of amino acids to polypeptides that make proteins, we learn that the information of life is stored in DNA, which is transferred to RNA and from there transferred to proteins that do the work of life. Proteins are as versatile as they are essential; they become specialized by their shape – the function of a protein is primarily determined by its shape. Proteins hold DNA together, they transport other molecules, they perform mechanical work, and they function as signal receivers or receptors. The symmetry of this system of transferring the information of life – from DNA to RNA to proteins – is clean and efficient. In a word, beautiful.
In addition to the above, the system is self-correcting. While mistakes in DNA replication are unavoidable (from a variety of causes) and occur at an approximate rate of 1 error in every 10,000 base pairs, this miraculous system has mechanisms in place to catch and correct these errors. Mismatch repair enzymes recognize and repair most errors that occur during the process of replicating not only base pairs of enzymes but of the sequence of those base pairs. Those errors not corrected are called mutations, some of which can benefit the organism but more often have serious, harmful consequences. We see the result of these errors in disease, malformations, or early death of the organism.
This system has given us the seemingly infinite variety of life here on Earth. Life has taken countless different forms over eons, each working in harmony with another, and if left alone will continue to create new life in subtle, harmonious forms for eons to come. Humans use selective breeding of plants and animals to our purpose, and often without considering the harmful consequences to the organism in mind (note the prevalence of disease and/or malformations in different dog breeds). But is our species so important as to require a flower that glows in the dark? Do we really need a rose bred so that it makes a picture-perfect cut flower for weeks in the vase and without a flaw on the foliage – but no scent?
Our fascination with selective-breeding and genetic modification seems to be guiding us towards destructive results. The prevalence of dogs with hip dysplasia or certain cancers is well known. Studies have shown that health problems throughout the animal kingdom occur from eating foods that have been modified with genes from other species of plants, or even from fish or other animals. Push-back from groups that produce these foods has been supported by their own studies and phenomenal amounts of money. Who are we to believe? What are we to believe?
To me, the answer is clear. The system of genetics, as originally created, has done well by this planet so far. We would be wise to allow it to continue unmolested. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something.