Gene Slicing? That’s against my personal code.
One change perhaps some of us – and I don’t mean just the biology enthusiasts – would like to see in 2017 is a ban on misleading uses of ‘DNA’, the building block of life. I’m talking primarily about the oft-used phrase “Oh, that -insert skill here – in just my DNA”.
Ironically though, the technology industry is converging with DNA, but not in the way that most people (mis) understand it. Lets untangle all these strands and see if anything becomes clearer.
DNA is made up on four nitrogenous bases – Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine – and the order in which these are put together codifies everything that influences the construction and running of any life form. As a fundamental principle, it is pretty straightforward and is taught to schoolchildren in biology classes. And yet, and yet, the world is full of people who claim that everything, from Agriculture to Zoology, is “in my DNA”.
This awful nonsensical claim displays a tragic misunderstanding of genetic coding. It’s especially appalling when someone in the IT indusry uses this phrase.
It hasn’t really mattered until now, but science has reached a stage where Human Programmability might become ‘A Thing.’
Recently personal genetics analysis has come on leaps and bounds. I’m a bit nervous about this, even more unsettled than I was by the people who misunderstand DNA. Soon the time when we misused DNA metaphors will seem like a golden age compared to the frightening new world we are entering.
As mentioned in a previous blog, there is some Big (really big) Data available now on genomes in many research institutes. This is invaluable intelligence which they have, up until now, inadvertently hoarded. Now a combination of high levels of security and cloud computing are enabling analysts to safely share the information, without it falling into the hands of Dr Evil. So together they could unlock the physical secrets of the human condition – if not the spiritual ones.
The companies that make products that tell you exactly what’s in your DNA now say they are at a similar tipping point. The only question is: Who will be the Apple of individualised genomics?
One contender is genetic sequencing startup Genos, which offers a complete profile of all the expressed genes (the ones that code for proteins) in your genome. Its sequencing technique unveils 50 to 100 times more data about, say, health-related variation in your genetic make up than previous techniques. A rival called Helix concentrates on sequencing only some of the expressed genes, for a cut price. You really have to know which part of your RNA you want to splice, mind you.
If you thought taking your car to the garage was intimidating, wait until you’re asking for a quote on getting your genomes overhauled. Make sure you choose a reputable firm of gene splicers and not some outfit operating under the railway arches. Further up market Veritas is already offering to will do the entire genome for American patients for $999.
Be aware that the ability to sequence DNA has far outpaced our understanding of how those genes interact with each other and the environment to cause conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s and autism. Most of the 180,000 protein-coding bits of DNA in your body are a mystery.
The top line is that our knowledge of genetic code is getting closer to the stage where DNA is programmable. It’ll be a good ten years before we can expect any DNA DevOps conferences but there are such events as ‘Programmability Month’ and ‘Codeshare Challenge’.
Meanwhile, our contextual understanding is less good. Knowledge tells you a tomato is a fruit. But only context tells you not to put tomato into a fruit salad. I’d never do that. It’s not in my, er, nature.