New discovery about DNA flips our view of life
We got a lesson recently about why it is foolhardy to assume that we know for sure about how things work in the natural world.
A new finding has put in doubt decades of thinking about the role of DNA and the genes that are part of DNA. Many of us were taught in basic biology that the keys to what makes us human lie in the genes and how they form or mutate in ways that affect disease and other factors.
Whether one has blue eyes or brown eyes and whether one is tall or short ... or any of the myriad of other differences between us as humans and which make us different from other life forms are the result of the genes located on strands of DNA.
Or is it?
It looks like we have been looking all these years in the wrong place, according to research reports published recently in scientific publications.
The reports claim that the real keys to our differences — and to disease — are not so much in the genes but in the material in-between the genes, something until now some have called “junk DNA” because it didn't seem to have a significant purpose.
But this “junk” seems to actually act like a computer operating system. What most of us see as a computer — the screens, the mechanical parts, the memory, the case, the keyboard — really are useless without the key thing that makes it all work, and that is the lines of computer code that tell these things what to do. That is the operating system.
Researchers say that is what the stuff between genes turns out to be: an operating system telling genes what to do to make the huge variety of humans or animals, bugs or plants — any living thing.
It is an amazing discovery and it could explain something that has puzzled biologists.
How could humans be so complex yet have fewer genes than some animals and even some simple plants? The answer lies in the “junk” that turns things on and off in different ways. It make humans even more remarkable in the scheme of life.
All that is certainly interesting, but some may ask, “So what?” We are what we are and can't change it.
But, actually, we could change what we are if we learn the workings of the “operating system” and how it turns things on and off. And that means we could possibly cure many devastating and common diseases.
That was the hope for genes, and it seemed to work for some diseases. But researchers found the answers to many diseases didn't seem to lie in the genes themselves. The reason why may now be clearer: The “switches” that control the genes are the force behind disease.
Even knowing that, however, doesn't make it any easier. There are millions of switches — tens of millions, actually.
It won't be easy but if the operating system can be decoded, we may be able to turn off heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, diseases of all types and even mental illness.
Now you know why researchers are so excited to have apparently solved the mystery of the “junk” that determines just about everything about us as human beings.
An exciting era seems to loom for mankind.
But then we also thought that about genes. It is hard to pry out the secrets of life. Are researchers right this time?
Terry Ross is director of the Yuma Sun's News and Information Center. Email: email@example.com. Telephone: 539-6870.