One of my first professional colleagues kept a quotation on the wall of his office:
Things take longer than they do.
— Bill Deterline
To me, Deterline was distilling the real world: complications arise. You don’t know what you don’t know.
An item in today’s Washington Post adds another tally to the Deterline side of the equation.
I’ve read for years about “junk DNA,” the apparently useless segments that make up long stretches of genetic code. In this view, up to 95% of the human genome consisted of segments for which no function had been identified.
Till now, that is.
29 scientific papers published today, according to the Post report, provide evidence that the “vast majority” of this junk DNA is “busily toiling at an array of previously invisible tasks.”
One implication is that many, and perhaps most, genetic diseases come from errors in the DNA between genes rather than within the genes, which have been the focus of molecular medicine.
Complicating the picture, it turns out that genes and the DNA sequences that regulate their activity are often far apart along the six-foot-long strands of DNA intricately packaged inside each cell. How they communicate is still largely a mystery.
I once heard James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, speak about genetics. He described the human genome project as finding all the letters in the genetic code — an essential first step, but something like finding all the letters in a book written in Russian. Researchers would next need to learn the vocabulary of genetics, and the grammar, and the syntax.
Junk DNA isn’t as junky as we might have thought. It’s more complicated than it is.Â Take a look at this great graphic on the Post site.
One reminder for me is that even when I think I know what’s going on in a situation, the reality is likelier more complex, less easily mastered.