The music of life

June 2012
Human genome. Source Wikimedia Commons
The popular term used to describe 'genes' is that they are a 'blueprint' of life.

Therefore, life is something which emerges from its genes with the precision of an architect's construction, or, of an engineer's machine.  And, this 'blueprint' can easily be altered by adding in or taking away a section.

In the 'blueprint' analogy, the DNA of which genes are made is linear, 4-bit, chemical code able to churn out instructions for the manufacture of the proteins which somehow become alive.  The role of the cell is a chemical factory in which the genes are the managers dictating which proteins roll off the production line.  With the 'blueprint' as its basis, cells are slaves to their genes, and exist whether they want to or not.  Indeed, man-made genes are constructed to have all the qualities of a dictator and are forced into the 'blueprint' in a military-style coup: they fit very comfortably and 'naturally' into this picture.

Realising that the 'blueprint' analogy is a bit too simplistic to describe something as obviously complex as life, a more sophisticated description presents genes as 'computer software' for generating proteins.  The chemical factory in this vision becomes a very high-tech, digital machine in which biotech DNA can sit with ease.

More imaginative analogies used to describe the role of DNA in life use music.

For example, DNA has been likened to the digital codes for a melody imprinted on a compact disc.
You probably won't hear the biotech industry plugging this analogy, because it exposes the short-comings of the 'blueprint' version, and seems to be much closer to the truth. 

A CD is a database for sound.  By itself, it does absolutely nothing.  The disc will only function if it is in a CD-player, supplied with energy, and has a human being around with the intention of switching it on and listening to it.  Somewhere else in the story of the CD's 'life', there must be a composer, a musician, a CD-factory and a whole lot more.  Now, substitute into this analogy the words 'DNA'  for 'CD', 'cell' for 'CD-player', and who-knows-what for 'composer', 'musician' and 'intention' ... and you'll begin to get the point.  As for the 'CD-factory', the limitations of all gene/machine analogies are exposed, because living DNA creates itself.

Inserting some extra digital codes into a CD is a simple task.  However, how would a few bars of biotech 'Nellie the Elephant' sound in the middle of a Bach choral?

A more sophisticated analogy to describe genes has been put forward by Denis Noble, Emeritus Professor Cardiovascular Physiology.  He describes the full complement of genes (the genome) as an organ of 30,000 pipes. By coincidence, the world's biggest organs have around this number of pipes, while the human genome seems to have around this number of genes.  The pipes of an organ each produces its own sound and they are grouped together according to pitch, tonality and other effects.  The music produced by an organ is not a series of notes, but an integrated activity of the whole, vast, instrument.

However, like the CD, the organ pipes do nothing on their own.  They need a musician with an intention to play, a score, and an air supply.

A biotech plumber would surely be able to fashion a pipe to slip into this 'organ': the sound produced would, of course, be constant, uncontrolled, out of harmony and never in the score.

The organ is obviously not an analogy the biotech industry would favour and, even less so, the following one.

A fresher approach in the gene analogy game is to actively ditch DNA as the control centre for life altogether.

Outspoken biotech critic, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, describes life in terms of a jazz band in which every single player is spontaneous and free, and yet perfectly in step and time with every other.  This intrinsically coherent, interconnected and spontaneous wholeness is present at every level of existence: the universe, the planet, the ecosystem, the organism, the tissues, the cells the cellular bodies, the molecules, the atoms, and the quantum sub-atomic particles.  In this multi-story jazz band, the DNA forms a tiny part of the whole molecular level of life in which each molecule is aligned to form a continuum with all the rest, linking up the whole body.  As the band plays, life is danced into being.

What happens when a man-made gene is forced or smuggled into this molecular body?  The ramifications could extend from the quantum level to the universe.  Artificial DNA is a rogue intruder which doesn't connect, can only interfere, doesn't know the music, and can't dance.

We suggest you take a closer look at the references below and any of Dr. Mae-Wan Ho's books.

·       Denis Noble, 2006, The Music of Life, ISBN 978-0-19-922836-2
·       Mae-Wan Ho, Liquid Crystalline Water Music of the Organism, Insititue of Science in Society Lecture, 21.11.11
·       Mae-Wan Ho, Quantum Jazz, The Tao ofBiology, Institute of Science in Society report 1.05.07

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