Travel Blog #1: Mad Science!

A not-that-hidden benefit of a conference that takes a Libertarian stance toward meals is that you benefit from a substantial allotment of time at the middle of the day to order, purchase, make, catch, or what have you your lunch. It seemed like a good time to escape from the hustle and some of the bustle of the meeting and write up some thoughts on a talk I just saw.

This talk was delivered by an oddly misnamed George Church, professor at Harvard Medical School and apparent groundbreaker in the sequencing world. He began his talk with a description of the rapid decrease in sequencing costs starting in the 1980s, at which point I began musing on whether I should put my occasional urges toward short-form prose into action by starting some sort of insipid writing blog (expect a link at some point). I was well into writing something perhaps more high concept than one should attempt as a first outing when something, a vestigial instinct to acquire and process environment-changing information mayhap, caused me to tune back into the presentation.

I suspect most of us who have committed a good portion of our attention to science, particularly to what is effectively basic science, take it as an article of faith that knowledge about the basic processes of life, the universe, &ct will give us the ability to manipulate said processes. Whether due to my latent Luddite tendencies, a defensive reaction to science’s unparalleled ability to fail to deliver better tomorrows, or simply because I know I am no Joshua, I have generally expected that manipulation would occur at some safely removed future, by which time I would be more concerned about the doings of the day’s youth in re: my lawn than with an incipient rewriting of the laws of nature.

Curious, then, that the moment my attention returned to the ongoing keynote was when the esteemed Dr. Church was describing how his research group had successfully altered codon interpretation in a microbe.

It is difficult to give sufficient context for this. In basic biology, we are taught about the “vocabulary of life“, whereby DNA base triplets, or codons, are interpreted by cellular machinery into amino acids, thus translating what is a molecule of essentially pure information into something functional. Oh, there are mentions of bizarre microbes with slight differences in their translation schemes and even some comments existence of a universe of amino acids beyond the 20 that we know and love precisely because they enable us to do so. But then the mad speculation and X-men analogies subside and you get down to the fact that all of the life we see and most of what we can’t basically uses a common language for its core activities. While it makes perfect sense for there to be a common language among living things, there should not be any reason why it should have to be the specific language that we have. It turns out there may not be.

To the best of my understanding, what has been done so far is to change the sequence of transfer RNAs, or t-RNA, so that there is a change in the interpretation given to a specific sequence of three bases (quick primer on translation, for those truly curious). If you then change the corresponding sequence of a gene, what you have is a DNA sequence that will produce exactly the protein that it originally encoded, but only in one specific organism. That same sequence in an organism with unadulterated t-RNAs would produce a nonsense, and presumably nonfunctional, protein. Conversely, DNA from another organism would be translated in this organism using the new equivalence, losing the original message. I’m largely at a loss for analogies, which for me equates being at a loss for words, but this is the best I can do:
Imagine, if you will, a pair of twins. Overtaken by a strange fancy, the twins decide to randomly swap the meanings of some words in their vocabulary. Cat swapped with red, sweet swapped with hello, end table swapped with antipathy. While their sentences would make perfect sense to each other, an outsider would be left completely in the dark. If these twins were phenomenally successful in their experiment and actually forgot the original equivalences, they could likewise no longer understand what anyone else said. The words would all make sense, but they would be strung together in ways that conveyed no information at all. In essence, these twins could be perfectly verbal but completely unable to communicate with anyone but each other.

And that is exactly what this group is trying to do. In response to concerns about engineered organisms escaping into the wild and disseminating their genetic charge, they are setting out to create an organism that is incapable of communicating genetically with every other organism on the planet. A curious side-effect of this would be to make the organisms completely immune to viruses. It does you no good to hijack a cell if the message you make it translate is nonfunctional. Yet another interesting aspect of this is that we might be able to observe viral genesis in real time and get a vertiginous glimpse into how genetics actually operate at a very large scale.

There were a further 20 minutes to the talk from this point, no doubt as paradigm-shattering in their own way as what I’ve mentioned, but by that point I had too much to digest to care any further. Then we broke for lunch, as if nothing much had changed.