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Thursday, January 10, 2013

How DNA Taught me to be a Better Person (Robot?)

I remember being in 6th grade and learning about DNA for the first time; I was watching Jurassic Park.  Dinosaurs were made of DNA.  I’m made of DNA.  If I take DNA from a mosquito, stick it in a frog egg, I can make dinosaurs! ...What the hell is DNA?

Fast forward through middle school and high school and I finally learn what DNA is from general Biology courses. DNA is a genetic blueprint. DNA eventually makes RNA which makes proteins.  Watson and Crick.  Central Dogma.  DNA to RNA to protein.  DNA to RNA to protein.  This is how it is.  This is always how it is; it goes in this direction and only this direction.  It’s predictable and understandable.  Still unsure of how to make dinosaurs from mosquitos and frogs’ eggs, but I’m sure college will tell me.

Imagine the confusion of me going to college and learning that it’s not that simple.  That RNA can make DNA.  Or that RNA can make RNA.  After all those years of things being a certain way, it’s suddenly not that way anymore.  Oh, and it’s pretty much impossible to make dinosaurs from mosquitos and frogs (which I guess is a bonus for me because I’m absolutely terrified of frogs.)

At this point, I realized I have two options: I can both ignore this fact and continue to only believe in The Central Dogma (DNA to RNA to protein) and be stuck in this outdated way of thinking or I can learn the rest of the story.  Knowing I wouldn’t get very far as a Scientist without being open-minded, I read the research articles, took the classes, and replicated the experiments.

Maybe for the first year or so, I would still pause in the middle of whatever I was doing and think, “Hey man, this can’t be right…the Central Dogma says…oh…riiiiight….”  I’d draw the Central Dogma out and then doodle frowny faces around it because I felt like I had been lied to.  I threw away my Jurassic Park VHS away in a fit of anger (Okay, so I threw that away with the advent of DVDs, but you catch my drift….).  I eventually learned and figured it out with practice and patience.  Plus, I learned a lot of awesome things (“I use miRNA to silence mRNAs.  It’s like RNA blackmail,” and “HIV uses reverse transcriptase to FUCK SHIT UP,” are among the awesome things I can now claim I know.)

Nowadays, when I talk about DNA, I don’t automatically go, “Ah, DNA to RNA to protein!” I mean, that’s still in the back of my head, but I know that isn’t the whole story.  I know that proteins can modify proteins.  I know that there are viruses that are only RNA.  Epigenetics alters gene expression without ever changing the blue-print.  I know the flow of genetic information isn’t a straight line; there are millions of lines, many of which I may never learn about, see, or experience.  And that’s okay.

But why just stop at DNA?

I realized that a lot of things I thought I knew or understood were only a part of the whole story.  My definitions of things, while not necessarily inaccurate, may not be someone else’s definition.  There are millions of ways to do one thing, not just the one “right" way.  There may be things I won’t ever learn, see, or experience.  And that’s okay, as long as I keep an open mind and a willingness to learn.

Still no dinosaur, yet, though. 

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