When Linus Pauling, the legendary chemist, peace activist, author, educator, and two-time Nobel laureate, discovered that a specific heritable protein variation in a single component of haemoglobin protein complex results in sickle cell anaemia, he initiated a new era in biomedical sciences. Years later, the gene responsible for the haemoglobin variant was discovered — including an entire series of discrete molecular events leading to the symptoms of the disease. Thereafter, the ever fast-expanding ‘behold-the-gene’ bandwagon has moved on, providing explicit elucidation of how and why particular people fall ill. Not only that. It has augmented new horizons, or echelons, and demystified a natural phenomenon, without loose ends.
As noted geneticist, Gary Zweiger, puts it, “Biology is being reborn as information science, a progeny of the information age.” His raison d’être? Molecules convey information. It may, therefore, be logically construed that each molecule interacts with a set of molecules — and, each set communicates with another set. He adds, “Networks of molecules give rise to cells; networks of cells produce multicellular organisms; networks of people bring about cultures and societies; and, networks of species encompass ecosystems. Life is a web and the web is life.” Genomics, as Zweiger also explains, goes beyond the conventional one-to-one gene trait approach. It ‘transduces’ biological data into digital information which could be analysed, scientifically synthesised, manipulated and combined to reveal the exactitude of millions of life’s molecules.
What’s more, our gene introduces us to private and government labs across the world, where gene ‘sequencers’ are generating information about the billions of nucleotides making up the DNA. This also brings to light the work of Craig Venter and Randall Scott, not to speak of the several genii of yore who first made it all possible.
In today’s context, we can anticipate what effect this glut of new innovation will have on us. We could, therefore, see more diagnostic tests for single-gene genetic diseases; more clinically valuable gene products and new targets for drug development, including grea­ter use of gene expression microarray analysis in drug discovery research and disease diagnoses. As one researcher puts it, “I am not sure about the ultimate source code, but I am certain about two irrepressible messages. One tells us to live long, and the other beseeches us to know and express ourselves.” This brings a definitive vision — by ‘transducing’ the genome, we are sure going to acquire greater responsibilities to becoming the stewards of our own progress and vice versa.
According to critics we have got to blame ourselves for having placed gene mechanics in a Kafkaesque paradox. They are right. More importantly, not giving the irony its due has cost us dearly: a host of disease syndromes and a range of calculable or psychological disadvantages, including disturbances of the immune system, and its functioning. Interestingly, groundbreaking research in the field of gene medicine has today corroborated one of nature’s wisest connotations. That wholesome health holds a ‘hands-on’ prescription for longevity — a ‘signpost’ that is much more influential than diet, exercise, or heredity. For our gene-obsessed society, this is a wake-up call for vibrant, good health — a realisation that also explores the vital connection between health, happiness, well-being and a quality nap.
(The writer is a wellness
physician and author)
Rajgopal Nidamboor