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Genes cleaned, starched while you wait

Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2000

Recently, an organization called ``The Human Genome Project'' - which, incredibly, turns out NOT to be rock band - announced that it had deciphered the human genetic code. Scientists reacted by holding a celebration so joyous that many of them woke up the next day with undershorts stains that they believe could take years to fully analyze.

Clearly, then, cracking the genetic code is a big deal for the scientific community. But what does it mean to you, the non-scientist who still secretly believes that radio works by magic? To answer that question, we need to review basic biology.

I studied biology under Mrs. Wright at Pleasantville (N.Y.) High School in 1963. It was an intensive course, including a laboratory segment in which each student was issued a jar containing a dead worm, a dead frog, a dead grasshopper and a dead perch. From these specimens we learned a key scientific principle that unites all living creatures: If you put them in a jar, they die. We also learned that if you cut them open, you found that all of them (except the worm) contained internal organs, without which certain pranks would not have been possible.

But the question is: What makes these creatures different? When frogs reproduce, how come they produce another frog, instead of, say, a perch? For that matter, how DO frogs reproduce? Because they do not have sexual organs. (If they did, we definitely would have noticed in biology lab.) Perhaps they reproduce by adoption.

We do not yet have the answers to these questions, but we know that the key lies in the science of genetics. According to Mrs. Wright, genetics was discovered in the 19th century by an Austrian monk named Mendel, who spent many years in his garden observing the reproduction of pea plants. (In those days there was no HBO.) Mendel noticed that the baby pea plants would often inherit certain characteristics of the mommy and daddy pea plants, such as height, eye color and personality. Mendel found that, by mating a certain pea plant with a certain other pea plant, he could cause a third pea plant to go into a violent jealous rage, resulting in injuries to vegetables as far away as the zucchini section.

What can we learn from these experiments? I have no idea, and Mendel refuses to return my phone calls. What we do know is that scientists eventually discovered that every living organism except Jesse Helms contains genes, which are tiny things that scientists call ``the blueprints of life'' because they are found inside tiny filing cabinets in tiny architect's offices. Inside these genes are molecules made out of a substance called ``DNA.'' From the start, scientists suspected that ``DNA'' was actually an acronym that stood for longer words, but they couldn't figure out what, because it was in some kind of genetic code.

And that is where the ``Human Genome Project'' came into the picture. For decades, researchers with a powerful magnifying glass and a background in crossword puzzles worked on decoding a DNA molecule. It was not easy. There were many disappointments, such as the time, after six years of intensive work, when they discovered that the molecule was in fact a nose hair.

But finally they finished their historic task and were able to announce to the world the message contained in the human genetic code. (It begins: ``To Whom It May Concern.'') And although much work remains to be done, we have - in the stirring words of Al Gore, who revealed that he did most of the work - ``found the combination to the padlock of understanding on the gym locker of human life.''

But what does this mean, in practical terms? It means that some day, doctors will be able to isolate, and then yank out with tiny scientific tweezers, the genes that cause certain humans to have certain genetic defects that until now have been incurable, such as rooting for the Yankees; or continuing to say ``Whasssssup!'' long after it stopped being funny; or failing to turn left immediately when the green left-turn arrow lights up; or buying movie tickets with a credit card when there are 94 people in line behind you; or putting a huge pile of groceries on the supermarket checkout counter, then informing the people behind you that you have to go back and get ``just a few more things''; or never being able to order ANYTHING at a restaurant without giving the waiter special instructions about how it must be prepared (``... and to drink I'd like water, no ice, chilled to 38 degrees, with a lemon on the slide, sliced thin, but not too thin ...'').

Yes, we are heading toward a day when, thanks to genetics, the entire human race will be completely free of defects - a day when everybody, and not just the fortunate few, will be a professional humor columnist.

Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.



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