I’ve been reading about genes lately (inspired by the book “Next” by Michael Crichton). It is interesting and scary at the same moment to think about the way gene studies can emerge. My aim is to present a simple framework to think about gene research and it’s possible outcomes. By no means, I can call myself anywhere close to knowing how it all works out together. So, take my words with a grain of salt and pepper and some sambar podi…:)
The fundamental question is, what determines us to be the way we are as humans, the way we look and think and so on? It was found that, proteins in our body (consider this as a big molecule) is composed of a linear array of amino acids. Based on the proportion and alignment of these amino acids, one can determine the answers to the aforementioned fundamental questions. The linear sequence of amino acids (the strand of DNA as it is often referred) forms the so called genomic sequence. There are approximately 30000 genes in the human body. Doesnt look like a very large number now, does it? As a matter of fact, chimpanzees and humans only differ in gene counts by a meagre 1.5% if you compare the absolute number of genes. As a matter of fact, an earthworm has around 20000 genes. So, what does these count really mean? If they differ only by a few percentage, why do humans have an order of magnitude difference ?
For a s/w programmer, one way to visualise is to consider a protein coded gene as a big library module with individual strands of amino acids as various functions/methods within the library. For a given individual or an organism, at any time, only a few functions’s run. Each function has the ability to call functions from other libraries too. So, if there are 2 protein-coded genes which have a certain composition of genomic sequence, they could influence each other. So, the net effect is that there are various combinations in which they could interact. Environmental stimuli can also affect the way the genes work. In humans, one can think of it as more functions running which in turn fires a lot more stuff in the genomic sequence than other organisms.
Once we have that framework of thinking, the next question is where do we stand in terms of gene research. One central goal is to identify all the gene sequ
ences, which in human’s case has mostly been done and named. The next thing is to associate each gene with it’s associated set of characteristics and functions that it can do (partially done). Then, the third thing is to study the association between different genes (very much in the development phase). If we can do all three, then, for a given disease or ailment, we can figure out the gene sequence that causes it and then remove it or suppress it from the system. This series of study is about how an already grown adult can be fixed if there is a gene related issue.
The other aspect of the study of genes is cloning. As you might know already, the embryonic stem cell contains the entire set of protein coded genes which later determines characteristics of human beings. This concentrated potion that contains all our information can be obtained from the blood from umbilical cord during birth. If you have embryonic stem cell, you could take an egg and suppress it’s default gene-signatures and inject embryonic cells to produce a clone which carries the same gene signature as yours. Think of it, you can pretty much take an egg and populate it with the genes that are termed “good” ones and create a new being… What if you dont have the embryonic stem cell? What if the blood was not frozen and stored at the time of birth? Scientists have figured out that, they can use skin cells and still construct a clone… So, if that is the case with humans, what about inserting a gene or two from humans to other organisms to see if they can do what we do, like speaking or learn math or whatever? That is proven to be possible too… Infact, just yesterday, I read an article that says that, scientists were able to populate cats with a fluorescent causing gene which makes them glow in night (don’t ask me who in their real mind would do such a thing…ofcourse, it is the koreans…no pun intended..:))…
A lot of cloning related study is dangerous from the perspective that it could cause off springs with all kinds of defects and at that point, it is newly created human life at stake, which is why it is highly debated…The proponents claim that, one could develop organs which are a direct match to an individual and do transplants….Till a decade ago, what I used to imagine as fiction seems to be transforming into reality. Movies like Gattaca which focuses on gene based profiling is probably not far from future… Is it good or bad or ugly? Only time will tell…. You can too…:)