Friday, December 17, 2010

Science: Thinking About DNA

Explaining complex ideas to others is a challenge. Translating concepts from their original wording into something comprehensible by someone else is a difficult art. There is a long history of writers translating scientific concepts into layman's terms. But why stop there?

Why not take complicated and difficult ideas in one discipline and explain them in the complicated and difficult terms of another discipline? Why not let experts in one field get to understand the underlying concepts of another in their own native terminology? Especially since in some cases the underlying concepts translate pretty easily.

For example... DNA is encoded information. While it's not the "blueprint" of the human body it is information our cells carry around and use. It's instructions for the nucleus. Doesn't the term "instructions" sound close to the term "program"? Maybe, just maybe, there are ways to explain DNA and it's use in cells in terms that a computer scientist would understand.

Bert Hubert did just that in DNA seen through the eyes of a coder. Fair warning though. If you don't know about computers and information theory and a large chunk of computer technology as well as a little biology you will probably get lost. This is not meant as a slow and subtle crossing of the divide. You get dumped into the deep end and the terminology flows fast and furiously. If you do know quite a bit about computers DNA will suddenly make a lot more sense.

Bert also nails one of the issues I have with descriptions of DNA and cell division. I'm not a biologist but it always struck me that the typical description to the layman was wrong. We usually hear something like "when cells divide the DNA gets copied so that each cell has a complete set of instructions". Which is, of course, wrong.

DNA in a cell in not one copy of the instructions - it's two. DNA comprises two strands side by side. One is the opposite (or compliment) of the other. It's as if we carry around a photo of the instructions we need to run our cells as well as a copy of the negative of that photo. We carry both in each cell.

If I have a photo and a negative and I separate them then I can use the photo to create another negative and the negative to create another photo. I can take my two copies (the photo and the negative) and split them and make two sets of copies. Each set will have a photo and a negative. One of the sets will have the original photo and a new negative and the other set will have the original negative and a new photo.

DNA is roughly equivalent. Our cells carry two copies. When the cell divides the two copies are separated and each is used as a template to build its now missing opposite copy.

That long winded, and hopefully clear, description of cell division is nowhere near as succinct as Bert's computer related version:
Each DNA Helix is redundant in itself - you can see the genome as a twisted ladder whereby each spoke contains two bases - hence the word 'basepair'. If one of these bases is missing, it can be derived from the one on the other side. T always binds to A, C always to G. So, we can state that the genome is mirrored within the helix. 'RAID-1' so to speak.
See. It's can be easy to explain complicated concepts in one discipline in terms used by another discipline. Especially if the two disciplines are related.

If you are a coder, computer scientist, techie, programmer, or quite knowledgable on computer topics than DNA through the eyes of a coder will help explain the complex chemical dance of information that's taking place in your body all the time.

No comments: