by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 16, 2008 in Meaning of DNA
Andrew Yates of Think Gene is feeling blunt today as he tells us what DNA means to him.
My background is computer science, so to me, DNA is the object code of life. Unlike human-designed languages, DNA is entirely unbounded by intelligibility or elegance —only function.
So we are looking for meaning at the wrong level of abstraction. Our understanding of DNA is tainted by an anthropomorphic misunderstanding of how a language “should” work: “genes” are “sequences of letters” positioned by an “index” like words in a book. One word, one meaning. This is a mistake, as supported by the inconsistent success of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and the disappointing usefulness of today’s genomic testing.
We don’t try to understand object code in software without abstraction, so why do we try to understand DNA directly in life? Here’s why we shouldn’t try to understand DNA directly —even more so than object code:
* DNA is an implementation, not a map of abstractions. That is, units of DNA have no constraint to “mean” anything. Even object code can usually be interpreted as processor instructions and numbers.
* DNA is a template for amino acids and RNA, not a set of instructions (code) or table of facts (data).
* What DNA “describes” is probabilistic, dynamic, highly context-sensitive. It moves. Its parts move. Its environment moves. It’s chemistry. Object code is discrete and static. It’s math.
* DNA is hard to sequence. Object code is trivial to sequence.
Genomics today is like alchemy: we’re tinkering with a system we don’t understand in hopes of some elixir of longevity —except we call it “the cure for cancer.”
Why? Because we are impatient. Because we vastly over-estimate our ability to understand complex systems without simple abstractions. Because we believe what is difficult must be valuable. Because genomic research today is commercial, and gold must be made.
Well, that’s crap.
In software, we abstract object code with higher-level languages. When that system becomes too complex, we make a new, even higher level interface and abstract again. We continue until surface complexity is low enough to be useful.
In genomics, we label genes with some incomprehensible, ontologically-inconsistent name and then strain to make that gene “mean” some attribute or disease.
There is some use for the black-box, top-down genomic testing, but I believe that this approach alone is wrong. I believe that what we should be doing is creating better abstractions, interfaces, by which DNA can be understood. I believe that the future of genomics —the people who will make DNA mean something— will be the language designers who compile to DNA.
Until then, God laughs. There’s a reason why Window’s object code is everywhere, but the source code is top secret. Bill Gates laughs, too.
No related posts
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.
Search Eye on DNA
- Genetic Genealogy on Faces of America
- DNA Network Tweet Cloud
- Genetics = Real Science
- Larry David’s DNA Test
- Lopez Tonight First Late-Night Show to Offer DNA Testing
- American Genes Don’t Exist
- Knowledge about Genetic Risk is Power or is it Fear?
- Murderer Gets Reduced Sentence Because His Genes Made Him Do It
- Video: Knome’s Ari Kiirikki Speaks with Medgadget
- DNA Toys: Ben 10 and Digimon Digivice
- 100 Facts About DNA
- Salaries for Jobs in Genetics
- Fetal Gender DNA Tests Answer Common Pregnancy Question...Or Not
- How To Determine Paternity Without A DNA Test
- What does DNA mean to you?
- Eye on DNA Interview: Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh of RedTracer DNA Test for the Red Hair Gene, MC1R
- Books About DNA: The Crime of Reason by Robert B. Laughlin
- Genetically Modified Organisms Bring in the Cash
- Navigenics Introduces Physician Portal and Annual Insight Service
- People Who’ve Had Their Genomes Sequenced
09/29/2009 07:03 am
- Larry David’s DNA Test
11/17/2009 02:52 am
- 23andMe DNA Tests for $399, Down From $999
09/10/2008 04:33 am
- Crazy Genetic Marketing Ideas
07/05/2008 09:14 pm
- Parenting Children Using Genetic Tests
05/18/2009 02:09 am
- Business of DNA
- DNA @ Google Answers
- DNA and Disease
- DNA and Genealogy
- DNA and the Law
- DNA Around the World
- DNA Fun
- DNA in General
- DNA Inventions and Gadgets
- DNA Lab Talk
- DNA Podcasts and Videos
- DNA Quotes and Excerpts
- DNA Testing
- Gene Therapy
- Genetic Engineering
- Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms
- Jobs Involving DNA
- Personalities with DNA
- Polls About DNA
- January 2010
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008
- March 2008
- February 2008
- January 2008
- December 2007
- November 2007
- October 2007
- September 2007
- August 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- April 2007
- Unbounded Medicine
- OMMBID Blog
- Dream Mom
- Discovering Biology in a Digital World
- John Hawks Anthropology Weblog
- Philosophy of Genetics
- Women in Science