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Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.
for WorldWatch Magazine, May 2001
The Human Genome Project's completion was greeted by a flurry of media commentary. Although Science and Nature both made original reports available, few of us have the time or expertise to sort through firsthand information. Unfortunately, the media reports often presented difficulties in interpretation. They ranged from accounts of scientists' dismay that our gene count was little higher than that of yeasts, worms and mice, along with confusing talk of "junk," "detritus" and "parasites" in much of our DNA, to a few opinions that the awesome complexity of our DNA indicated the hand of God at work.
What then are we, the public, to believe? And whatever we choose to believe between these extremes, how will it affect our voices with respect to the lucrative new opportunities such projects open up for the genetic "engineering" of our selves and our potential clones and "designer babies"?
Genomic Evolution as an Internet
Perhaps the key comments on the results came directly from Celera, the private team completing the project and reporting in Science, Feb 16, '01 that
Taken together the new findings show the human genome to be far more than a mere sequence of biological code written on a twisted strand of DNA. It is a dynamic and vibrant ecosystem of its own, reminiscent of the thriving world of tiny Whos that Dr. Seuss' elephant, Horton, discovered on a speck of dust . . . [I]n one of the bigger surprises to come out of the new analysis, some of the "junk" DNA scattered throughout the genome that scientists had written off as genetic detritus apparently plays an important role after all.
What does it mean to discover that our genome is a "dynamic and vibrant ecosystem?" To answer that question, to grok our DNA, we need to go back in evolution to complex systems evolved by archeobacteria billions of years ago, when they alone held title to Earth. We need to understand that their amazing lifestyle diversity was rooted in their ability to trade DNA freely among themselves.
To this day, every bacterium around the planet can trade bits of DNA with any other it can contact, and in microbiologist Lynn Margulis' words, they do so with all the fervor of traders on the floor of a stock exchange. We have, in fact, been stymied by their ability to alter their genomes in response to our anti-bacterial warfare.
This DNA information exchange begun in ancient times may well be seen as the original Internet. The important thing to understand is that DNA has been and is traded as a worldwide information system throughout evolution.
The DNA Internet Today
The greatest steps in evolution are arguably the evolution of nucleated cells (eukaryotes) as the communal symbioses of archeobacteria (prokaryotes) and the later evolution of multi-celled creatures from these eukaryotes. Lynn Margulis demonstrated cell symbiosis in exquisite detail, and successfully revised the classic tree of evolution showing it to be made entirely of microbes except for the tips of one branch representing all multi-celled creatures! (National Geographic, Mar. 98, p. 79).
The staggering pervasiveness of DNA in the biological world is memorably depicted by Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent, Tarcher/Putnam NY 1998). Narby pointed out that if the six inches of DNA packed into the invisibly small nucleus of each of our one hundred trillion cells were stretched out end to end, a jet plane traveling one thousand kilometers per hour would fly more than two centuries to reach its end! After this surprising result, Narby calculated that a single handful of living soil contains more DNA than that of our entire bodies, bacteria being packed far more closely in soil than cellular nuclei are in us. The genome project updates Narby's DNA measurement to six feet of DNA molecule per human body cell, which leaves our poor jet pilot flying continually for over 2400 years! Let us revise the handful of soil accordingly into a full wheelbarrow load and acknowledge that microbes are still the world's most pervasive and influential life forms.
Nature seen from this perspective is nothing short of astonishing -- a vast self-organizing and reorganizing DNA information system, largely microbial. Some scientists see viruses as blueprint packets ancient bacteria created to mail out in multiple copies -- highly efficient DNA distribution at a distance. Smaller packets of tradable DNA are called plasmids.
Lewis Thomas, former head of Yale Medical School, better known for his wonderful science essays, suggested that ancient bacteria may have invented us as big taxis to get around in safely (Lives of a Cell, Bantam, NY 1975). I think it more likely we are conference centers for their information exchange. After all, we continually breathe in and absorb bacteria, viruses, plasmids and other loose snippets of DNA, permitting them to throng about in our guts, cells and even in our chromosomes.
Scientists express surprise at how much "biological activity" goes on in our genomes, and at bacteria living in them. They now see that over forty times as much DNA as that in known genes is devoted to TEs -- transposable elements known since Barbara McClintock's pioneering work half a century ago, showing that TEs not only move about but do so in response to stress on the organism. Her results have been supported by many later researchers, including Eshel ben Jacob, who sees the genomes of bacterial colonies as group minds able to respond intelligently to stress on their colonies (Sahtouris, A Walk Through Time, Wiley, NY, 1998).
It seems reasonable to suppose that our genomic system, too, is behaving intelligently as a constant hive of activity now known to edit and repair itself. If it did not know what it was doing, I believe it would revert to chaos in very short order.
We now know genomes repair mutations and other errors. Evolution may proceed primarily in response to crisis situations, when genomes get inventive, drawing on their great libraries of information to develop new gene configurations.
At present the global genomic system, including our own genomes, is under assault from human-produced toxins. Some come from industrial wastes, some from industrial products, such as our highly destructive agricultural chemicals. And then there are the assaults of our antibiotics and our genetic "engineering."
My consistent quotation marks around the word engineering are deliberate. To engineer something requires a thorough understanding of the system in question, and I question whether genetic engineers do understand how genomic systems work. Rather than seeing their intelligent self-maintenance and responsive creativity, they see genomes as dumb mechanisms. They are surprised when crop genomes, for example, either reject gene implants as bodies reject organ implants, or make multiple copies, sending them out to weed species that become as immune to the sprays sold with the engineered seed as the crop itself!
Because it now becomes clear that genes can be traded across, as well as within. species, there is no question that we can do enormous damage by playing with this powerful but non-containable technology. It is already impossible to guarantee organic corn and soybeans, because we cannot contain our genetic implants within geographical locations or within species. Some medications are now failing in people who have ingested genetically altered foods; other warning signs are flaring up daily.
The actual results of the genome project indicate that our genomes are closely related to and intertwined with those of all other genomes. Gene Myers, the Celera computer scientist who actually assembled the genome map, says:
The system is extremely complex. It's like it was designed. There's a huge intelligence there. I don't see that as being unscientific. Others may, but not me. (Breaking the Human Code, The Washington Post, Vol. 18 #17 Feb. 19-25, 2001)
I'm with Myers. Earthlife has had almost four billion years experience in evolving living systems -- why should they not be intelligent? As their genome complexity and intelligence is revealed to us, I suggest we become humble pupils and put our genetic "engineering" on hold till we truly understand its potential, its consequences and dangers. If we then combine our conscious intelligence with that of the larger system in which we are embedded, we may be able to bring real health to ourselves and all ecosystems. The alternatives are too gloomy to contemplate, so I'll invest my optimism in our own intelligence!
Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D. is an internationally known evolution biologist and futurist, author, speaker and consultant on Living Systems Design. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts and M.I.T., was a science writer for the HORIZON/ NOVA TV series and a United Nations consultant on indigenous peoples. Her current focus is on evolution biology as a model for globalization and organizational change; her recent books are EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution, A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us, and Biology Revisioned.