Identical twins are living proof that our genes contribute to, but don’t completely determine our behaviour. But what about our faith? Does our DNA affect our beliefs or how we express them? Denis Alexander and Nell Whiteway have spent the last couple of years working on a project at the Faraday Institute ‘Genes, Determinism and God’*. Nell spoke on the genetics of religious behaviour last month, as part of the Wesley Methodist church Science meets Faith lecture series.
Any parent of identical twins knows that identical DNA does not equal identical personalities. On the other hand, twins do share many characteristics – even if they grow up in separate families – which makes them an ideal population for geneticists to look at. Continue reading →
In Science, Faith and Creativity I explained how science can be creative, and that a Christian working in the sciences might see that as part of their relationship with God. Apart from a brief description in The Creativity of Chemistry, I haven’t yet given an example of what creative science looks like, so I will attempt to remedy that here. (This is a longer post than usual because I have included a basic explanation of molecular biology for the non biologist.)
I personally came to appreciate the creativity of science while studying genetics. Creative people generate ideas and make new things, and I discovered that lab-based research involves both of those activities. My favourite part of the genetics course at Aberdeen University was molecular biology: the study of DNA and proteins. I enjoyed the challenges of problem solving, lateral thinking and visual model making that were involved in exploring the micro-world of cells and molecules. I also appreciated that fact that we were learning about solutions to real-life issues. Continue reading →
The young researcher Matt Meselson must have been very excited when he pulled a photograph showing a series of grey stripes out of his wallet and passed it round at breakfast on New Year’s day 1958. Most of us might have a limited understanding of what he was celebrating, but his work has since been hailed as ‘the most beautiful experiment in biology’.
Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick’s famous Nature paper describing the structure of DNA. The now iconic helix was a bold idea based on data from the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, and kick-started a revolution in biology. From the 1960s onwards, molecular biologists, including Matt Meselson, have been unravelling the secrets of the genome.
As a student in genetics I was taught the key experiments that helped scientists to accept that DNA was the molecule of inheritance, understand its information-carrying properties, and figure out how that information is passed on. I’m glad we didn’t have to reproduce this work in the laboratory because it was highly technical, rather tedious, and often involved the use of radioactive chemicals. With my impressive track record of spilling liquids, I’m not sure I would have survived! The resulting data, however, are beautifully simple and satisfyingly visual.
Perhaps the fuzzy grey bands that Meselson pushed under his friends’ noses that day would not look beautiful or simple to most people. To a biologist, however, the clear and visible demonstration of the ‘semiconservative’ replication of DNA by Meselson and his co-worker Frank Stahl is beauty itself. Something that looked rather boring – a series of grey stripes representing DNA with different chemical labels – has changed the way we see ourselves in a fundamental way. Continue reading →
The scale of the universe is truly mind-boggling, and it’s worth dwelling on. But it’s important to keep looking in other directions. Every day your body produces millions of new cells without you even thinking about it. Each of your cells contains the same set of DNA instructions*. Your cellular DNA quota (genome) is an incredibly thin chemical chain with about 6 billion links called nucleotides, and is approximately 2 metres long** (don’t test this at home!) Each time a new cell is produced, that DNA has to be copied to an extremely high level of accuracy. It was the same for all 50 trillion cells in your body – it all started with DNA replication. When a cell is about to divide, a number of proteins recognise and bind to the DNA at specific points. Geneticist John Bryant has said that it’s harder to begin DNA replication than it is to start a nuclear war – the process is that tightly controlled. At least forty different proteins have to be in position before replication can begin.
Once initiated, DNA replication happens relatively quickly. The clue to how this works is in the iconic DNA double helix image that is represented in art and architecture the world over. DNA consists of two complementary strands twined together: one is a mirror image of the other. This helix is unwound, and each chain is used as a template to build a new complementary strand of DNA. When you were conceived, you received a copy of each of your parents’ DNA. Making DNA is like writing: without proper editing mistakes will undoubtedly slip in. For DNA replication, multiple layers of proofreading ensure a high level of accuracy. So out of your 6 billion inherited DNA chain-links, only 30-70 of the links are wrongly copied. That’s a maximum of one mistake in every 100,000,000***. If I could do anything that accurately I’d be very happy! And this is all happening at great speed: 6 billion chemical reactions often in less than 24 hours. I remember writing about DNA replication in great detail during an exam at University. At the end of my essay I waxed lyrical about how this process was happening incredibly fast, at such a high level of accuracy, and without any conscious effort on our part. I’m not sure what the person marking my exam thought about my reverie, but I was impressed! I often find that looking in detail at the universe – even just standing outside on a dark night – gives me a feeling of smallness. Staring at the stars, or studying cosmology in depth, has given some people an awareness that there might be a God out there after all. What does looking at the very small and complex make people think? Tiny packages like cells or atoms can contain surprisingly complex systems, and immense power. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Perhaps as biology proceeds over the next few decades we’ll hit up against similar philosophical questions to those raised by the older sciences of physics and astronomy.
I heard a talk last week by Howard Cedar, a developmental biologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cedar has spent his career working on epigenetics - a series of annotations that need to be understood in order to read that language. To produce different cell types, huge numbers of genes have to be switched off, and that’s achieved by a series of biochemical changes to the DNA – methylation, for example. So far so good, but it seems that this methylation can sometimes be affected by the environment, as seen in the famous (to developmental biologists) ‘agouti mouse’ experiment. If you feed ‘blond’ pregnant mice a special diet, their offspring get blonder. Other examples in humans include studies of populations that have undergone periods of starvation, or lifestyle studies including smoking*. In his talk, Cedar was cautious about the applications of this type of experiment to human medicine, but it’s fascinating work – and will hopefully become useful for improving health in the future rather than simply being alarming for parents-to-be.
I had a conversation with Howard Cedar about science and religion, and his response was that they do not mix – rather like Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magistera (‘NOMA’) but further apart. I think one of the reasons was an encounter with a Christian student who decided to pray that his experiment would have a certain outcome. I suspect the student concerned hadn’t thought very hard about the nature of science. We do experiments to discover more about the world God has made, and how he chooses to sustain it, and that’s an incredible privilege. Our successes in science are tiny steps towards understanding the world God has made. I suspect that when an overstretched student prays that God will reinvent the laws of the universe so that their next paper can be a success, they provoke a chuckle from the Almighty…
*For an introduction to the area of Epigenetics see chapter 10 of The Language of Genetics, An Introduction by Denis Alexander. If you’re reading this on a university campus and want to go deeper, you can find Howard Cedar’s latest papers here.
I’ve been blogging about astronomy recently. It’s an easy target really – anything that involves staring at the night sky is likely to move people to worship. But what about my own subject of biology? The living world is a lot messier, but it is just as amazing.
Our own development from sperm and egg to squalling baby takes just nine months. During that time, the instruction manual for a unique physical human being is read off from the DNA code that resides in every cell in our bodies.* It’s incredible that the information is all there in the 2 metres or so of code in each cell. DNA is about a billionth of a metre (2nm) wide, and is not visible with even the best light microscopes (these can only see things as small as about 50 nm). Inside the cell DNA is coiled up, in a number of complex stages, into a tiny mass that fits inside the nucleus of the cell.
Until recently I believed that we had enough DNA in our bodies to take us on an amazing journey. I was told that if all the DNA in each cell of your body – all 2m of it – was extracted and added end to end it would reach as far as the moon and back. That’s quite a thought.
But then I checked the numbers for a children’s talk that I was preparing and discovered that the story I had been told was way off the mark.
We have about 50 trillion (50 x 1012) cells in our bodies.
Multiply that by 2m, and you have about 100 trillion metres, or 100 billion (100 x 109) kilometres of DNA.
So yes, we do have enough DNA in our bodies to take us to the moon and back, but you can go much further than that – to the sun and back more than 300 times! I can’t even begin to comprehend that, but it’s very impressive. And I’ve ended writing about astronomy again…
I’ve been criticised for making the leap from ‘wow that’s amazing’ to belief in God. But that’s not what I’m doing. I don’t believe in God because of anything to do with science (see my earlier post for more on this). The point is that I believe in a big God, and learning more about how incredible the universe is helps me to understand a little more about just how big God is.
*Except mature red blood cells or the lens in our eyes – in these cell types the DNA would get in the way so it’s broken down.
I’ve been getting some useful feedback on these posts, and I would particularly appreciate your input on this one. It’s an illustration that I’ve been using in a number of talks recently.
This is a cartoon of the molecular structure of DNA. Obviously no one has ever seen it – it’s too small even for the most powerful of microscopes. It was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick (and several others) using x-ray crystallography in crystals of DNA. After their famous Nature paper was published, the science of molecular biology flourished and Watson and Crick’s model for the structure of DNA was tested in many ways. Now we have so much evidence for the double helical structure of DNA that no biologist would doubt it.
The structure of DNA hasn’t been ‘proved’. You can only prove things using maths. Science is about disproving things – narrowing down the options and getting nearer the truth. So in a way we believe that DNA is a double helix by faith – faith that is well founded on the ‘laws’ of physics, and lots and lots and lots of reliable evidence. I’d be fairly confident to stake my life on it (though I can’t imagine why I’d need to…)
What does that have to do with Christianity? This is something that I do stake my life on, so I’d better be sure it’s worth believing. Like science, none of the interesting questions in life – ‘Is that a great painting?’ ‘Does that person love me?’ ‘Is there a God?’ – can be solved mathematically. But I think there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claims of Christianity in history, archaeology, answers to prayer, the study of the Bible, and so the list goes on. For me the most important evidence is the way in which God changes lives. When someone you know well becomes a Christian you have the opportunity to see whether Jesus’ claims are true – first hand. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. That’s the reason why I’m a Christian, and why I think science and Christianity have something in common.