The New Genome

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Over 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.