Watson and Crick and the Dumb Molecule

3 June 2011


Deoxyribonucleic acid, ‘DNA’ for short, otherwise known as the ‘dumb molecule’. Why? Because it promises so much, but delivers so little. It’s in every single cell of every single living thing – amazing, yes? But, for being so ubiquitous, it is really rather boring. All it does is sit inside its cell, being manipulated by the really active molecules, the interesting ones that respond to stimuli, that interact with the world, and each other, and actually determine who and what we are – the stuff of life.

And somehow, myself and Dr Crick have found ourselves working to understand it. We derived it’s structure some years ago (barely a murmur outside of the usual scientific establishment), and I thought I’d be able to move on. But no, I’m stuck in this backwater of biology. 

What makes one cell sensitive to light, and another cell sensitive to touch? One cell become bone, the other blood? It’s not the DNA. How could it be? The DNA is the same in all cells.

Imagine a symphony orchestra, where every musician has exactly the same score. All the instruments will be playing the same notes at the same time – no harmonies, no violins coming to the fore, no rolls from the timpani ending with a clash of symbols – no variation, no dynamics. That musical score is the DNA – boring, undifferentiated, without complexity. 

But now imagine that score with notation – with different parts taken out, or emphasised for different instruments. Suddenly you have a symphony! It’s the notation that makes us who we are, that causes us to develop from a tiny ball of cells in to an individual.  It’s the notation of the DNA that is the great mystery of life.

And it’s what myself and Dr Watson are not working on.

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