talk of "junk," "detritus" and "parasites" in much of our DNA, to a few opinions that theawesome complexity of our DNA indicated the hand of God at work.What then are we, the public, to believe? And whatever we choose to believe between theseextremes, how will this affect our voices with respect to the lucrative new opportunities suchprojects open up for the genetic "engineering" of our selves and our potential clones and"designer babies"?
Genomic Evolution as an Internet
Perhaps the key comments on the results came directly from Celera, the private teamcompleting the project and reporting in
(February 16, 2001), "Taken together thenew findings show the human genome to be far more than a mere sequence of biologicalcode written on a twisted strand of DNA. It is a dynamic and vibrant ecosystem of its own,reminiscent of the thriving world of tiny Whos that Dr. Seuss' elephant, Horton, discoveredon a speck of dust ... [I]n one of the bigger surprises to come out of the new analysis, someof the 'junk' DNA scattered throughout the genome that scientists had written off as geneticdetritus apparently plays an important role after all."What does it mean to discover that our genome is a "dynamic and vibrant ecosystem"? Toanswer that question, to grok our DNA, we need to go back in evolution to complex systemsevolved by archeobacteria billions of years ago, when they alone held title to Earth. Weneed to understand that their amazing lifestyle diversity was rooted in their ability to tradeDNA freely among themselves.To this day, every bacterium around the planet can trade bits of DNA with any other it cancontact, and in microbiologist Lynn Margulis' words, they do so with all the fervor of traderson the floor of a stock exchange. We have, in fact, been stymied by their ability to alter theirgenomes in response to our anti-bacterial warfare.
This DNA information exchange begun in ancient times may well be seen as the originalInternet. The important thing to understand is that DNA has been and is traded as aworldwide information system throughout evolution.
The DNA Internet Today
The greatest steps in evolution are arguably the evolution of nucleated cells (eukaryotes) asthe communal symbioses of archeobacteria (prokaryotes) and the later evolution of multi-celled creatures from eukaryotes. Margulis demonstrated cell symbiosis in exquisite detail,and successfully revised the classic tree of evolution showing it to be made entirely ofmicrobes except for the tips of one branch representing all multi-celled creatures! (
, March 1998, p. 79).The staggering pervasiveness of DNA in the biological world is memorably depicted byJeremy Narby in
The Cosmic Serpent
. Narby pointed out that if the six inches of DNApacked into the invisibly small nucleus of each of our one hundred trillion cells werestretched end to end, a jet plane traveling one thousand kilometers per hour would fly morethan two centuries to reach its terminus!
After this surprising result, Narby calculated that a single handful of living soil contains moreDNA than that of our entire bodies, bacteria being packed far more closely in soil thancellular nuclei are in us. The genome project updates Narby's DNA measurement to six feetof DNA molecule per human body cell, which leaves our poor jet pilot flying continually forover 2,400 years! Let us revise the handful of soil accordingly into a full wheelbarrow loadand acknowledge that microbes are still the world's most pervasive and influential life forms.
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