Scientists Detect Severe Cracks In the Idea of the Gene

We're at risk of mistaking the music for the piano in using a “jump to the gene” approach to biology. It's time for a more fitting view of genes to evolve. 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions


1. Scientists have detected “severe cracks in the concept of the gene. Portin and Wilkin (P&W) say a more fitting view of genes must evolve.

2. Here’s a handy reframing metaphor—we risk mistaking the music for the piano in a “jump to the gene” focus (a work-in-progress image to spur co-thinking).

3. P&W note the influence of a misleading “gene for X” view (that “there are individual genes responsible ‘for’ certain complex conditions, e.g., schizophrenia, alcoholism, etc”).

4. Their “crucial point… is that genes... exert their effects within… complex… genetic regulatory networks (GRNs).” They’re “not autonomous” as P&W say is implied by Selfish Gene thinking. For more selfish gene critiques, see “Die Selfish Gene, Die,“ “Every Self is a Society,” “Survival of The Friendliest,” “Every Selfish Gene Must Cooperate.”

5. The GRN view “recognizes the long causal chains that often operate between genes and their effects.”

6. But every gene must be triggered and exquisitely synchronized—in the right sequence, at the right time… somewhat like music.

7. Imagine life’s processes as precision molecular music “played” on genes.

8. In humans that life-music is played by an orchestra of ~20,000 gene-instruments, or on a piano with ~20,000 keys played by hundreds of hands simultaneously (syncing tunes across trillions of cellular orchestras).

9. Ill-sounding music can arise from single bad instruments or keys, but also from iffy musical scores and how they’re played.

10. Here the metaphor weakens, those multi-gene long chained “scores” aren’t written out sequentially (in DNA) but arise from the embodied logic of molecular processes (+their cascading ramifying interactions).

11. But focusing on gene sequence variations (e.g., as single nucleotide polymorphism) is like looking only at the keys. Slight differences in key materials might not sour the music (and statistical correlations can’t untangle this easily, even genome wide association studies, GWAS).

12. Here’s a concrete example of this music-like complexity from a simpler industrial bacterial system. Tweaking to increase yields shows that “most of the output-boosting genes are not directly related to synthesizing the desired” molecule.

13. A “jump to the gene” focus can make for a misleading tune. Biology isn’t just like a souped-up more complex version of our technology.

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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