A Lumpy Understanding of Genetics

Lumpy: (Adj) like or containing small sticky lumps; “the dumplings were lumpy pieces of uncooked dough”

In a NOVA special called “Cracking the Code of Life,” journalist Robert Krulwich discusses the Human Genome Project (HGP) with many relevant individuals, including Eric Lander, who led the HGP force working to “decode” the entire human genome. “Lumpy” to me, is a word that reminds me of cottage cheese, or perhaps gravy, but never a word that would describe the genetic code, as used by Lander. Lander goes on with an attempt to describe this “lumpiness” by saying that the genes are distributed like populations in the United States, with “New York Cities in some areas” and “vast plains that don’t have a lot of people in them.” Why he goes into such irrelevant analogies is beyond me. He could have left it at “uneven” or “more/less dense in certain areas” and the audience probably would have reached the same conclusion.

Perhaps such analogies were made to make Lander’s next point, how “remarkable” and “amazing” it is that our genes can be coded for by only 1.5% of the DNA we have, and that the rest of it is “stuff”. Krulwich, like me, is unsatisfied with the “stuff” description and asks, “This is a technical term?” to which Lander acknowledges as a “yes.” In actuality, there are more technical terms.

-Noncoding DNA covers much of the “stuff”, though it only accounts for DNA that is not transcribed;

-Junk DNA is used colloquially in scientific papers and biology classes.

“Stuff” means nothing and Lander’s personification of this “stuff” as “hitchhikers” that contain “selfish DNA elements” leads Krulwich (and in turn, the audience) to believe that junk DNA is “a bunch of freeloading parasites who could care less about us”. From my understanding, I don’t think DNA was ever alive and out to get us. In the scientific realm, junk DNA is thought to serve a purpose:

(1) Junk DNA may allow enzymes to form functional elements more easily or be required for regulatory purposes.

(2) Since junk DNA comprises of most of our DNA, mutations are more likely to occur in junk DNA, preventing cancers and other sicknesses that occur as a result of changes.

(3) Even more interesting is the possibility that new advantageous genes can arise from junk DNA, providing a genetic basis for evolution.

Maybe the producers of NOVA and Professor Landon just didn’t think these concepts were important enough to note in the two-hour special, or perhaps they thought it was more important to tell the audience that the scientists had fun and liked to play with NERF gun toys. Or perhaps this inadequate depiction of the human genome is necessary, to keep the audience thinking, or to help make the program come to a close (This dialogue’s in the last 5 minutes), but these little mistakes are not adding to what I hope is the purpose of this program: to educate the general public.

There needs to be a greater understanding by the public of genetics to make informed decisions on the future of genetics research, but watching a two hour documentary is going to cut it. Perhaps analogies and metaphors are necessary to humanize science and make it more understandable to everyone, but scientists probably aren’t the people to do it. Geeks in the sciences like Lander and me, are probably some of the most socially inept individuals of society, unable to explain our Land of Oz, a world that is completely relevant to society, but completely foreign.


(Understandings between public and scientists)

In our class, we’ve talked about the continued division of the sciences and the humanities, with the increase of specialization, as described in C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. With such a divide, there arises a need of individuals with an understanding in both fields. Hopefully, these mediators will be able to facilitate understanding and call DNA more than just “lumpy stuff”.



~ by djoe8 on January 31, 2010.

One Response to “A Lumpy Understanding of Genetics”

  1. You raise a very important communication gap between science and the public. Many times when scientists wish to convey their research to the public, they take things a bit too far. They try to speak in a language that the general public can grasp but it comes across “dumbed” down. But you are right, there is a definite lack of people who can bridge the gap between the scientific world and the world in which we live.

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