September 5, 2010

A rant about media coverage of genome sequencing

"Apple genome is cracked by geneticists," BBC News declared on August 30th. The article states, "Scientists from 20 institutions took two years to unravel the apple's code."

While I applaud achievements such as this one, I wish news organizations would stop portraying the latest sequencing of a genome as the cracking of a code. (So do T. Ryan Gregory and Larry Moran.)

Genomes do indeed use a code to specify how proteins should be made. But that code, in which each group of three nucleotides (such as ATG or CCA) corresponds to a single amino acid, was deciphered decades ago. The people who determined how this works -- Robert Holley, H. Gobind Khorana, and Marshall Nirenberg -- were awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Each organism's genome can also be considered a code in the more trivial sense of "something that represents or symbolizes something else." An apple's genome is a genetic representation of an apple, so you can call it the "code" for an apple if you really want to. But I submit that sequencing a genome is not much like cracking a code. As Katrin Weigmann says in a 2004 essay for EMBO Reports, "It is not genes but intricate protein networks that constantly survey the environment outside the cell, monitor metabolic processes and integrate this information into physical function. Simply deciphering the text as laid down in the genome therefore does not necessarily predict how life works at the cellular, let alone at the organismal, level."

Or, as I once wrote in a parody of the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him":

Yes, now we have their genome,
But I don’t see what it tells us.
It’s the genes; it’s just the genes.
And the genes don’t change
When the fuels do,
So how do the cells respond?
We need more clues!

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