The New Genome

By Carl Zimmer | November 10, 2008 11:10 pm

toadflax.jpgOver the past year or so I’ve been engaging in a bit of science-writing masochism. I’ve been asking a few short  questions and trying to get some answers from people who’ve spent years grappling with them. For example:

What is life? (in Seed)

What is a species? (in Scientific American)

What is intelligence? (also in Scientific American)

In tomorrow’s New York Times, I tackle my next question: What is a gene?

This article emerged out of a lot of conversations with my editor over the past few months. We marveled over the steady stream of intriguing studies on genetics that were being published–studies that were pushing us to expand our ideas about things we took for granted, like the very nature of genes. So I started talking to scientists who are looking closely at the human genome. Some are studying how the same stretch of DNA can spew out many different proteins. Some are looking at the previously underappreciated army of RNA molecules that create a shadow network in our cells. Some are studying heredity beyond DNA–the molecules that cling to DNA and control which parts get used to build proteins and RNA, and which are silenced (as wonderfully illustrated by the toadflax flowers shown here–identical genes, but different flowers). We talked about undead genes and carcasses of viruses that have been dead for millions of years. It’s a very long article for a newspaper, but trust me–I could have kept writing for a lot longer.

In fact, my piece is actually just the lead article to a package of stories exploring similar terrain, from Andrew Pollack on the search for RNA-based medicines to Natalie Angier on the philosophy of genes. Check them all out.

As I cryptically mentioned earlier, I’ll be talking about my article  tomorrow morning on the Takeaway, a morning news show on NPR. Check here for schedule information; you can also to the site for the podcast.

Image source: Nature Genetics

CATEGORIZED UNDER: General, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (6)

  1. Few years ago, our professor asked us ‘What is a gene’? I did a lot of web surfing. One of the interesting and unique definitions I have come across which throws a entirely different light on the argument is the one given by Dawkins in ‘The Selfish Gene’:

    ” The gene is defined as a piece of chromosome which is sufficiently short for it to last, potentially, for long enough for it to function as a significant unit of natural selection.”

  2. You lost me here Carl! Not as great as usual your paper :-(

    Maybe some things have to be straightened-up in a new one.

  3. “A gene is a DNA sequence that is transcribed to produce a functional product.” [What Is a Gene?]

    Glad I could help. Send the check to my home address. :-)

  4. See Carl? Even Denyse O’Leary found it interesting :-(

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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