Reading the Language of God

DNAiStock_000007250789Small benjaminalbiach correct orientation
© Benjamin Albiach, istockphoto

DNA has been called, by the former Director of the Human Genome Project, ‘The Language of God’. Interpreting that language has been a very interesting exercise.

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.

7 thoughts on “Reading the Language of God

  1. Ben Bennetts September 15, 2011 / 6:01 pm

    Thank you for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Ruth. As a non-scientist I always find something in your blogs to expand my horizons.

    “I suspect the student concerned hadn’t thought very hard about the nature of science.” – I suspect you are right; and also that he hadn’t thought very hard about the nature of prayer. I would submit that prayer is very much like the study of science, an endeavour to understand the world that God has made, and to bring our thoughts and lives into line with it – absolutely not a means of distorting or manipulating that world to suit our arbitrary opinions or wants. That is certainly at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer.

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    • Ruth Bancewicz September 16, 2011 / 9:32 am

      Thanks. I disagree somewhat with your last statement though. I agree that prayer is a two-way process, and an important part of that is God changing us and at times using us to answer our own prayers. But the Bible encourages us to approach God as we would our Dad, telling him everything and asking for things. Moses was a good example of someone who wrestled with God, and God answered his prayers – sometimes even ‘changing his mind’. It’s a mystery, but I think prayer does change things. I just don’t think that applies to science experiments… :)

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  2. Dan Rodger September 16, 2011 / 6:56 pm

    Just discovered your blog, its great to see some well written articles on science from a Christian perspective!

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  3. Richard Hosking September 20, 2011 / 2:23 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    This may sound a little crazy, but DNA methylation could be one place where the ‘language of God’ (DNA) and the ‘Word of God’ (the Bible) overlap.

    Our brain’s remarkable capacity to learn, change and remember is described by a process known as ‘neuroplasticity’. Recent studies suggest this involves several epigenetic mechanisms – including DNA methylation – which help encode an individual’s long-term memory and behaviour (see papers below).

    Consequently, it’s interesting to link St Paul’s idea that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16-17 NIV) with the ‘breath of life’ in Genesis 2:7 and highlight other Biblical passages which emphasise the importance of internalising God’s commands (e.g. Psalm 1:2, Proverbs 7:1-3, Hebrews 4:12, Romans 12:2).

    So – to borrow the tag line from an old beer commercial – prayerful Bible study might methylate parts of the genome other mental exercises cannot reach!

    DNA methylation-mediated control of learning and memory. Mol Brain. 2011 Jan 19;4:5. http://www.molecularbrain.com/content/pdf/1756-6606-4-5.pdf
    Epigenetic mechanisms in cognition. Neuron. 2011 Jun 9;70(5):813-29. (Abstract) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21658577
    Cortical DNA methylation maintains remote memory. Nat Neurosci. 2010 Jun 13(6): 664–666 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3043549/pdf/nihms264342.pdf
    DNA methylation and memory formation. Nat Neurosci. 2010 Nov 13(11): 1319–1323 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3130618/pdf/nihms-265735.pdf

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  4. Maddy July 31, 2014 / 12:10 pm

    Hi. The diagram of DNA you have with this post is wrong. DNA is a right-handed helix, while this one is left-handed.

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