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The Secret to Our Complexity

October 18, 2009

The Outer Limits used to be one of my favorite TV series. It was relatively unknown, always aired sometimes after midnight, but had a cult following of those who appreciated an hour of intelligent, inventive, and sometimes thrilling if not downright bizarre science fiction. Each half hour show is an individual story. It always begins with a short scene, followed by the same ominous introduction that without fail made the hair on my arms stood up. There is a chilling undertone to the show, often touching on issues that haunt our collective consciousness as a species – evolution, fear, religion, the unknown. I could not get enough. Often staying up late with the volume low just to catch it.

The series ended somewhere in the late 90s, and I’m amazed to discover that many full episodes are now on youtube! Bless youtube, really. I came across an episode that I saw briefly back in the days and never got to finish: The Double Helix.

The ending wraps up a little too neatly for my taste. However…I loved the concept and the epilogue…the unquenched human thirst to know it all. (p.s. spoiler may be contained below)

I first learned about introns in my high school biology classes. Genetic engineering always fascinated me, and for a while I thought about studying it as a career. It stopped when I realized how bad I was at organic chemistry and how much better I’m at dealing with people. Indeed, it is my fascination with people that underlies this curiosity, for our genome is the source of all our similarities, differences, and individuality. It contains all our potentials and realizations, and all that we try so hard to understand about ourselves and still do not.

I did a little digging around and found this amazing article on the significance of the hidden part of our genome. If you liked the episode above, you may enjoy this:

The Hidden Genetic Program of Complex Organisms by John S. Mattick

Genetics is a complex subject, involving at the simplest terms, DNA, RNA, and proteins. DNA is the double helix of raw genetic material that is commonly known as genes. It is converted by a process of “transcription” into RNA, a single strand of genetic material, which is then converted by a process of “translation” into proteins, a molecule that carries out a certain function that contributes to our overall well-beings as a human being. There are vast amounts of DNA, and hence an endless variation of proteins, each with a genetic purpose to perform a certain function in our body, leading to a desired outcome. When something goes awry in the DNA-RNA-proteins process, it could be as simple as one extra or less molecule, the outcome is changed, sometimes in a significant way. Almost all of the diseases that plague our species is caused by such minute changes that goes on constantly, continuously, within each of us, without our knowing or control.

It’s easy to believe that there is a god, at least I can imagine it would be,  when you realize that almost everything that happens to us physically and mentally, of us, is so…out of our control. What is it controlled by? Scientists have studied for decades and what they have found out is miniscule compared to what they admit that they don’t know.  A divine being is a simple explanation in the face of such unknown.

Introns, the extra genetic material that is cut out after DNA transcribed into RNA, but before it is translated into proteins, was discovered in 1977.  Basically, the double helix genomes within each of us is consisted of both introns and exons. Only 1.5 % of our DNA, the exons, actually transform to RNAs and then to proteins producing a known bodily function, 1.5 percent. But most of our DNA get transcribed into RNA anyway – why? Scientists thought for years that the extra 98.5% of our DNA doesnt’ really have a functional purpose, that is’ just “junk”. Why would so many genes make the effort to go through the first part of the genetic expression process, only to produce so much “junk”? From an evolutionary point of view, it doesn’t make much sense.

The Mattick paper makes an argument that the extra 98.5% of our genes are not without purpose, that they in fact, serve a direct regulatory function to the 1.5% that encode proteins. It asserts that this regulatory function of the  introns is directly responsible for our evolution from one cell bacteria to the complex organism that we are today. Given that life on earth consisted solely of microorganisms for most of history, simple combinatorics of existing proteins couldn’t have resulted in such an explosion of evolution of high complexity. Something extra must have been at work as a trigger. Furthermore, it asserts that this proposed regulartory network, rather than the transcribed genomes, is actually responsible for not only our individual idiosyncracies but also our genetic susceptibility to most diseases, our higher cognitive functions, and will be the key to the design of actual self-programming and self reproduction systems, i.e. artificial intelligence and artificial life.

The fact that this is only a theory, that we still are not sure if the 98.5% of what make us who we are have a purpose, and what that purpose is, is mind-boggling. You hear it all the time in self-help books: realize your true self, live to life’s fullest potentials, accomplish all that you can accomplish, blah blah blah. The truth is, how can we possibly do all that when we don’t even know the true functions of the stuff that makes us, us? It’s like telling an entrepreneur to turn a profit when he/she doesn’t know how much capital they have to start with. It’s preposterous. No wonder we are so confused as a species. No wonder we fight and create weapons of mass destruction and have addictions and vices and agonize over the duration of our lives – the journey is so precarious, and we hardly know what tools we have to navigate toward our destinations.

Of course, you can argue that is life and that is what make life interesting, the unpredictability of it all. If we truly understand 100% of our genomes and hold the key to immortality and artificial life and intelligence, would we be any happier? Countless have wondered about it. The possibility of knowing it all. Would our humanity be improved? Would we evolve – not only physically, but mentally and emotionally? What would that be like? Is such evolution beyond the plane of our current understanding because, simply, that we are not evolved enough to comprehend it?

I don’t believe that our eventual evolution will come by a small bottle of brown liquid and a key to a spaceship on someone’s hand. But I do believe that we have a pending breakthrough. I do believe that we are leading up to something, even if we don’t quite understand it yet. And when we get there, I do hope that our humanity will come with us.

Oh, and I would totally take that trip. No question.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2009 10:30 AM

    This post reminds me a little bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its focus on human evolution. The first evolution was in discovering how to craft tools (or, in the context of the movie, weapons). The second is not as explicitly shown, but possibly affected space travel. The third leads to the next evolution of man.

    Who knows when or what the next evolution will be? I was reminded of another “Outer Limits” episode in which children were listening to some music received from outer space, and started forming metallic pieces on their bodies. The adults originally thought that the music was harming their children, but when they cut them off from it, the children died. (warning: spoilers ahead) What they eventually discover is that an alien race had discovered that our sun was going to become a red giant (like theirs had), and so they sent the music in order to provoke a change in our bodies that would create a protective covering from the sun’s more powerful rays. The only other thing I remember about that episode was that Kirsten Dunst starred in it.

    Looking on Youtube, I see that they have this episode! It’s called “Music of the Spheres.” Here’s a link to Part One:

  2. October 19, 2009 4:23 AM

    @ “Grace”
    3:20 AM CST

    Uh…Again your enthusiasm is impressive, attributable no doubt to your youthful genetically predisposed hormones, and a little “espresso” to help along where genomes are lacking.

    You might want to set aside the caffeine laden espresso for a moment, however, and revise your recollections.

    The original OL series, which aired from 1963 to 1965, comprised 52 episodes, ALL one hour long, not half an hour (actually about 49m when you don’t include the lame commercials).

    The second series,(Canadian, all one hour), not nearly as well made as the first, (with a few good exceptions), actually lasted longer, from 1995 to 2002.

    You may be thinking of the unprecedented Twilight Zone, unparalleled and unequaled since (and NEVER will be matched, despite at least three lame efforts by Hollywood).

    Most of the TZ episodes were a half hour; there were 18 hour long episodes in the 4th Season, most of which bombed out; again with the exception of a few good ones. TZ comprised 156 episodes in all, from 1959 to 1964.

    Hitchcock episodes left a similar trail of mostly great half hour episodes, and several overwrought hour long fiascos; again, with a few good exceptions.

    A genuine appreciation for these unprecedented pioneer episodes is best served with the facts of their introduction into the American consciousness.

    But keep up the enthusiasm anyway. And might I suggest sans espresso, or you may crash hard one day, and suddenly realize you’ve been living ing in an Outer Limits episode. Without the appreciation.

    Take this from one who knows about these minor things.


    Grace: Of course! Five 10 minute clips add up to an 1-hour show minus commercials. Corrected…oops. And lay off the beans…I like my caffeine and that’s that. Life’s short :)

  3. October 19, 2009 10:42 PM

    Hi Grace. I remember watching some episondes of that show. Always liked it.

    I recently read Stephen C Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell”. He suggests that the “junk DNA” is really equivalent to the operating system (Windows XP), and the coding regions are like application programs. It makes sense in an Intelligent Design framework.

    But, that’s an argument that I’m having on Roger’s Darwin threads. I’ll leave it there. Thought you might find that thought interesting.

    Grace: Windows what? That sounds like something with an engine…

  4. October 20, 2009 2:03 AM

    “There is a chilling undertone to the show, often touching on issues that haunt our collective consciousness as a species – evolution, fear, religion, the unknown.”

    How about war, weapons, warming ?

    Grace: those too, basically all the dooming stuff.

  5. October 20, 2009 10:55 AM

    There is a sequel to this episode that describes what happens on the journey. It is a pretty slow moving episode but a little interesting nonetheless.

    I actually saw the second one before the first. I am not sure if I would reccomend the second episode but it is certainly worth seeing the conclusion.

    Grace: I wanted to see the second one. Unfortunately the only one on youtube has a loud voiceover in another language. Where did you see it?

  6. October 21, 2009 2:22 PM

    I saw it on Showcase or something like it a few week/months ago. They have the Outer Limits on at 9 or 10 most days.

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