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Are we drivers in our own biology or victims of our genetic makeup?

genetics What was so threatening about your work?

The research that first led me to question scientific dogma took place in the petri dishes that are the workhorses of cell biologists' laboratories when I was cloning stem cells. Stem cells are embryonic cells that replace the hundreds of billions of cells we lose daily in normal attrition due to age, wear-and-tear, etc. As hundreds of billions of cells die every day, hundreds of billions of new cells are created from our bodies' stem cell population.

For my experiments, I would take one stem cell and put it in a petri dish all by itself. That cell would then divide every ten to twelve hours. After a period of about a week, I’d have about 50,000 cells in the petri dish. For my experiments, the most important factor was that all of the cells were genetically identical because all of them came from the same parent cell. Then I split up the cell population into three dishes, each with different culture mediums, i.e. each with a different environment. Despite the fact that all the cells were genetically identical, in environment A, the cells formed muscle; in environment B, the cells formed bone; and in the third environment C, the cells formed fat cells.

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Do Your Genes Run You or Vice Versa?

overwieghtmom Do Your Genes Run You or Vice Versa?
There's a disturbing trend in science to try and prove that human beings are machines, and where this was once a metaphor, it is being taken more and more literally. We are told that a brain hormone is responsible for falling in love or a mother's affection for her newborn baby. Brain areas that light up on an fMRI scan supposedly indicate that a person is depressed or prone to criminal behavior and much else. Besides being brain puppets, we are supposed to believe that our genes program us in powerful ways, to the point that "bad" genes doom a person to a host of problems from schizophrenia to Alzheimer's.


There needs to be a clear rebuff of this notion that human beings are mechanisms, and the fact that science has a wealth of findings about both genes and the brain doesn't make the notion any more valid. The general public isn't aware, for example, that only 5% of disease-related genetic mutations are fully penetrant, which means that having the mutation will definitely cause a given problem. The other 95% of genes raise risk factors and in complex ways interact with other genes.
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Your Body Is Trapped in Stale Information

DNA Your Body Is Trapped in Stale Information

One of the mysteries about our bodies is how they manage to change and yet remain the same. DNA is routinely called the blueprint of life, yet no other blueprint actually builds the house or skyscraper it models. Once DNA builds a body, the body grows and disintegrates at the same time. This is apparent from the skin and stomach lining, which rapidly form new cells as old ones die. But every cell has a given lifespan and willingly dies, so to speak, when it's time is up. 

How did the body develop this ability to be born and die at the same time, to balance creation and destruction? If we dive to the molecular level, the mystery only deepens. Cells need food, air, and water, and the molecules of each are in constant transport, passing through the cell wall and out again. In addition, the messages that the brain sends to every cell in the body course through the bloodstream with precise messaging that doesn't get confused--in effect, the bloodstream is an information superhighway in which there are no traffic accidents even though the cars have no drivers.

To date, the best way to understand what's going on is through genetics, and now the whole field of genetics has entered the information age. As summarized in a recent TED talk by biologist Dean Gibson provocatively titled "How to Build Synthetic DNA and Send It Across the Internet " there are now machines that biologically print DNA once they are fed instructions in the form of data easily transmitted on the Web. This conversion of information into actual DNA builds upon previous technology that enables bits of stored genetic material (the basic four-letter alphabet of ACGT) to be combined in any conceivable way.

Gibson's lab has pioneered sending information and turning it into genetic material, which in 2013 allowed them to take the code for an alarming new strain of bird flu in China and in a matter of hours turn it into a viable vaccine to fight the disease, a process that normally takes up to six months. The promise of similar applications is set to revolutionize how new drugs are made.

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