New Epoch Big Bang – From DNA To RNA Centric Biology
(Excerpts from writing on June 20th, triggered by the Economist Magazine: Biology Big Bang, June 14th)
In 1953 the double helix molecule of the DNA was identified. The secret to life was believed to have been found. It is difficult to overestimate how far reaching and enveloping this belief became in the following decades. It was a paradigm that captured our imagination. We learned to believe that our “Indiana Jones” biology scientists had discovered a secret map to the Holy of Holies – the secret chamber at the nucleus of the cell. Coded in it were supposed to be all those final secrets that would unlock the mysteries at last. It suited the mythologies and archetypal thinking of the old world. The secrets were kept in a hidden cavern and they were now being brought out into the light.
Within a short time DNA became central to our collective awareness, a core component of the cultural narrative and political discourse, engrained in our self concept as well as in our language – “my DNA”, “your DNA”, “their DNA” – the language-form perpetuating the perception-form in the cultural story-field.
Every once in a while “something” gets through to enter the collective discourse. Something got through this week to the editors of The Economist. Their cover page reads: “Biology’s Big Bang: Unraveling the secrets of RNA”. The article tells a story of a dramatic shift in Biology. Biology’s “Neutron Moment” (relative to when the neutron was discovered in 1932 and changed physics) tells the story of redeeming the RNA from a lesser role of a secondary molecule that carries the genetic content as a messenger.
The Economist: “There is in biology at the moment a sense of barely contained expectations reminiscent of the physical sciences at the beginning of the 20th century. It is a feeling of advancing into the unknown, and that where this advance will lead is both exciting and mysterious.”
“IT IS beginning to dawn on biologists that they may have got it wrong. Not completely wrong, but wrong enough to be embarrassing. For half a century their subject had been built around the relation between two sorts of chemical. Proteins, in the form of enzymes, hormones and so on, made things happen. DNA, in the form of genes, contained the instructions for making proteins…. Oh, and there was also a curious chemical called RNA, which looked a bit like DNA but wasn’t. It obediently carried genetic information from DNA in the nucleus to the places in the cell where proteins are made, rounded up the amino-acid units out of which those proteins are constructed, and was found in the protein factories themselves.”
“All that was worked out decades ago. Since then, RNA has been more or less neglected as a humble carrier of messages and fetcher of building materials. This account of the cell was so satisfying to biologists that few bothered to look beyond it. But they are looking now. For, suddenly, cells seem to be full of RNA doing who-knows-what.”
So – Biology is going through a new big bang, big time! All of a sudden the primary focus is about to shift from the FORM and CONTENT of the DNA to the PROCESS of the RNA – that’s where the cell life and mystery lies. Scientists are discovering that there are many kinds of RNA with a variety of functions and capacities. It’s as if the DNA is being dethroned and with it some of the magical powers we attached to it. But now a new story unfolds. This illusive, multi-natured, shape-shifting RNA is taking center stage. How will this shift our self-concept and view of each other? How will it reframe the stories we tell? What is the bigger context of this shift and why now?
Let’s try to extrapolate and fast forward conjecture this shift to guess into what an RNA story-field is about to bring:
- First, it will redefine Biology.
- Then, the age old debate of Nurture versus Nature will be re-ignited with a great impetus on the nurture side. Many new understandings about evolution will open up.
- The new emerging mindset will be adaptive: “I can choose and change… I can evolve”, replacing the old epoch deterministic mindset of “I can’t help it, it’s genetic.”
- Society will discover in this a new collective narrative and a new self concept. It will shift from identity centric narrative to one of inter-relationships.
- If DNA was about ME, RNA will be about what might be. Where DNA focused on the individual and the ethnocentric persuasion, RNA mindset will highlight a collective and world-centric view.
- The new RNA conversation will be about how we grow, change, transform, and evolve, where the DNA conversation used to be about MY genetics versus YOUR genetics.
- In the emerging epoch we will be talking about what RNAs we are cultivating and connecting, not about our unique genetics as we did in the old epoch.
- In the old epoch people used to shut doors. In the newly emerging epoch there will be no need to shut doors – you could choose to not walk through certain doors until such time that you have a reason or a need to do so.
- In the old epoch people focused on “things” – in the emerging epoch we begin to focus on the space in between and around things.
- DNA was the foreground and RNA the background. In the new times one’s ability to shift the background to the foreground is where new possibilities or even the kiss of life may be found.
It may take a while for this to permeate throughout mainstream thinking in order to become the culture narrative but cell biology has just discovered that “the Earth is not flat.” The DNA paradigm produced a bias in which the FORM and CONTENT of the DNA were paramount. Now the PROCESS of the RNA is turning things upside down.
What will our world look like when we recognize FORM as a supportive rather than primary principle? When FORM is fashioned to facilitate PROCESS and Emergence?
(In Tribute to SOD – the “Souls On Deck” Circle where we muse about the evolution emerging now).
© Aviv Shahar