In 1893, the chairman of physics at Harvard University warned students that there was no more need for additional PhD’s in the field of physics. He boasted that science had established the fact that the universe was a matter machine, comprised of physical, indivisible atoms that fully obeyed the laws of Newtonian Mechanics. Since all the descriptive laws of physics were “known,” the future of physics would be relegated to making finer and finer measurements.
Two years later, the Newtonian concept of a matter-only universe was toppled by the discovery of subatomic particles, X-rays and radioactivity. Within ten years, physicists had to discard their fundamental belief in a material universe for it was recognized that the universe was actually made of energy whose mechanics obeyed the laws of Quantum Physics. That little piece of Universe Humor profoundly altered the course of civilization, taking us from steam engines to rocket ships, from telegraphs to computers.
Well…the cosmic prankster has struck again!
As it has done a few times in the past, this expression of Universe Humor upends a foundational basic belief held by conventional science. The joke is embodied in the results of The Human Genome Project. In all the hoopla over the sequencing of the human genetic code and being got caught up in the brilliant technological feat, we have not focused on the actual “meaning” of the results.
One of the most important and fundamental core beliefs in conventional biology is that the traits and character of organisms are “controlled” by their genes. This belief is couched in the concept of genetic determinacy, the conventional dogma provided in virtually every textbook and biology course. How do genes manage to “control” life? It is based upon the concept that genes are self-emergent, meaning that they are able to “turn themselves on and off.” Self-actualizing genes would provide for computer-like programs that would control organismal structure and function. Accordingly, our belief in genetic determinacy implies that “complexity” (evolutionary stature) of an organism would be proportional to the number of genes it possessed.
Before the Human genome Project was underway, scientists had estimated that human complexity would necessitate a genome in excess of 100,000 genes. Genes are primarily blueprints encoding the chemical structure of proteins, the molecular “parts” that comprise the cell. It was thought that there was one gene to code for each of the 70,000 to 90,000 proteins that make up our bodies.
In addition to protein-coding genes, the cell contains genes that determine the character of an organism by “controlling” the activity of other genes. Genes that “program” the expression of other genes are called regulatory genes. Regulatory genes encode information about complex physical patterns that provide for specific anatomies, which represent the structures that characterize each cell type (muscle versus bone) or organism (a chimp from a human). In addition, a subset of regulatory genes is associated with the “control” of specific behavioral patterns. Regulatory genes orchestrate the activity of a large numbers genes whose actions collectively contribute to the expression of such traits as awareness, emotion, and intelligence. It was estimated that there were more than 30,000 regulatory genes in the human genome.
In considering the minimal number of genes needed to make a human: we would start with a base number of over 70,000 genes, one for each of the over 70,000 proteins found in a human. Then we include the number of regulatory genes needed to provide for the complexity of patterns expressed in our anatomy, physiology and behavior. Lets round-off the number of human genes to a total of an even 100,000, by including a minimalist number of 30,000 regulatory genes.
Ready for the Cosmic Joke already?! What did ‘The Genome Project’ really show?
Tomorrow will be the conclusion to ‘The Human Genome Project’ – A Cosmic Joke that has Scientists Rolling in the Aisle.