by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog
DNA resounds with the connotation of Life. Not of the experiential life, but the “deep” life of our physical presence, our ancestry. The little arc in the story of the discovery of the double-helix structure, James Watson dreaming of two snakes intertwining, grants us the pleasure of the sooth-sayer whom we often rely on for things like this; or for a variation on that symbol: the spiral staircase. It can’t have been both, and now it’s starting to lose its veritable sway. In the figure of the two snakes, Caduceus, we can recognize the symbol of medicine: the rod of Asclepius; the spiral staircase connotes evolution and progress; either you’re getting to the root or ascending to the pinnacle. If the dream was not, the symbols remain apt, and the double-helix remains so.
Perhaps the discovery felt like a meaningful dream. The strange transitions, displacements, and conjunctions of things that play in the night, where there appear to be no redundancies, nothing to be indifferent to; the symbolic sense in understanding the actual rejuvenation of the body, the real necessity of living. The perfection of this condition mocks waking reality. And yet discovery, every once and a while, stands as a pillar in the shifting seas of experience; from whatever expedition, one only need recall this to find themselves on solid ground.
So, the little arc in the story remains apt, for the illustrative point. DNA, like its staircase figure, hints in two directions, both toward the future and the past. If we think first about what has been accomplished, and what passage of inquiry DNA has taken science since the discovery of its structure in 1953, we can begin to take the steps one by one, before peering down to the depths of the spiral. The double-helix revealed how genetic material is stored and transmitted from one generation to the next; the double-helix also revealed how the sequence of nucleotides in DNA provides the code for protein synthesis. DNA sequencing now gives medicine a method for understanding and diagnosing genetic disorders; the battle against cancer has had renewed effort by the influence of researching “tumour-derived DNA fragments”. Molecular Biology as a whole shows us the tensions between life and death at a microscopic level.
DNA cannot but continue to be passed around, continually undressing and dressing for its next role, for it is Life in the large sense of the word; how things have been able to unfold through time and space. Forensic Science, Agriculture, Archaeology … The Human Genome Project (HGP). HGP is the first map of the human genome and like early cartographers’ attempts to symbolise the world, it will be subject to improvement. However, the scale and position of the genetic material in the HGP offer a great reference for individual sequences, whether that be to inquire whether a drug will be effective for a patient or to analyze a disease.
Peering down past the progress since 1953, down that void which the spiral encases, we read in DNA the story of evolution until we meet LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor). Biogeography, the study of organisms and their geographical distribution, another kind of map, measures how and when species evolved. Over a long stretch of time, natural selection takes place via the inroads signalled by genetic variations in a species. Now LUCA is thought to be the prime mover for the diversity of life, the basic base of DNA, our relatedness. DNA and LUCA, of course, beg another question, one that DNA may answer in time, about the origin of LUCA. The prevailing hypothesis for this origin is a process called Abiogenesis. Abiogenesis is, as the Greek name would have it, ‘not’ (ab) ‘life’(bios) ‘origin’ (genesis): life came from non-life; pre-life chemical activity eventually crossing the threshold; from clay there came life.
DNA’s structure symbolically represents the two ways that Life can travel, and the further one goes, the further one must crane their neck to see past the next twist in the spiral; you cannot help but let the feeling of fancy drive you around the bend with its fuel for dreams. The past manifests Life as an inevitable force; the future shows Life as a precision process. DNA was first isolated of DNA by Friedrich Miescher in 1869, over the next 90 years many talented scientists put the pieces of the puzzle together until Watson, Crick, and Co. could finally visualise it correctly, and it was with the structure, the symbol, the form, that advanced the birth of molecular biology and the significant scientific progress that is used today. It’s funny to think of Crick announcing at a pub that he and Watson had “discovered the secret of life”, probably as life would announce itself, and then going back to a lab and realising the secret to be a new view, begin the process of mapping out the strange new territory which seems to go on and on…
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More on DNA Day here.
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