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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

A CHALLENGE TO GENE THEORY,
A TOUGHER LOOK AT BIOTECH,
AND A CORRECTION (DAMN)

by Denise Caruso ~ July 2, 2007.
Permalink | Filed under: Hybrid Vigor.

My New York Times column yesterday used a new study from the National Human Genome Research Institute to illuminate one of the central issues of Intervention: that the reductionist scientific principles on which the biotech industry is founded — that is, the theory that one gene will reliably and predictably yield one function or trait in a cell — are long since out of date.

As a result, I opine, both its economic underpinnings, in the form of gene patents, and its declarations of safety should be revisited, ASAP.

I am getting a ton of email on this, and I will post some of them here if I get permission. They are worth hearing/thinking about.

Unfortunately, while I was attempting to trim my “50-plus years of history, in just 1300 words” essay, I inadvertently conflated a couple, three scientific theories.

Gack. I hate it when I do that.

I wrote:

The principle that gave rise to the biotech industry promised benefits that were equally compelling. Known as the Central Dogma of molecular biology, it stated that each gene in living organisms, from humans to bacteria, carries the information needed to construct one protein.

The offending paragraph was actually three paragraphs at one point, describing three, now largely outdated theories.

First, Central Dogma was actually Francis Crick’s (tongue-in-cheek) slogan regarding his observation that information flows only one-way from DNA to RNA to protein.

Second, the “one gene-one protein/function” theory is probably best attributed to Christian Anfinsen (Nobel Laureate, 1972). In the mid 1950’s Anfinsen started working on the relationship between structure and function in enzymes, and eventually proposed that the structure of a protein was determined by the chemistry of its amino acid sequence.

And third, there’s the standard, or universal, genetic code: the set of rules for creating proteins from the codes stored in DNA. The idea that the rules are virtually identical across virtually all organisms was another critical theoretical link, that set the stage for the technology of genetic engineering — i.e., recombinant DNA — that was invented by Cohen and Boyer in 1973.

3 Responses to A CHALLENGE TO GENE THEORY,
A TOUGHER LOOK AT BIOTECH,
AND A CORRECTION (DAMN)

  1. Sylvia S Tognetti

    Greetings,

    I blogged this here, and just added a link to your update. The short version: the concept of creating “markets for ecosystem services” - an emerging strategy for internalizing environmental costs, raises the same kinds of questions but, since it isn’t yet a $73.5 billion industry, and the rules of the game are still a work in progress, there may be an opportunity to develop a new business model.

  2. Just another Ph.D.

    In my view, the findings of the ENCODE study do not turn the central dogma on its head, as you purport. Rather, this investigation (of 1% of the genome) illuminated the fact that beyond the discrete genes we have come to know and love, the previously so-called “junk” DNA is regulatory in nature and of critical importance. Furthermore, the fact that most of our genome is “used” and therefore can be thought of as a complex network of regulatory elements and genes, does not mean that what we know of genes per se is different now compared to before this study. In this sense, what was gleaned from the study was that there is much more to DNA than previously met the eye, and that genes are one type of important element of the genome. Taken together, I fail to see how the ENCODE findings merit the panic implicit in your article. Rather, this brute force approach to digging into our DNA revealed the incredible, elegant complexity of our genetic material and added to, rather than took away from, our understanding of genetics.

  3. Denise Caruso

    Central Dogma was turned on its head years ago. The point of the column was to point out that the important cultural institutions that govern the products of genetic engineering — the regulatory agencies and the patent system — are still in the central dogma mode. There was a lot more to the ENCODE study than some statements about junk DNA. And if you read panic into my column — well, I’m sorry to hear that. No panic intended, nor felt by me. Just trying to point out a fact that is relevant to how ordinary people should be thinking about genomics. Things are not as they have been sold.

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