Monday, December 19, 2005


Okay, so this is common knowledge. Still, I like the clear way Dawkins tells his tales.

[Open quote.] If you think of the genome as a blueprint, you might expect a big, complicated animal like yourself to have more genes than a little mouse, with fewer cells and a less sophisticated brain. But, as I said, that isn't the way genes work. Even the recipe or instruction-book model can be misleading unless it is properly understood. My colleague Matt Ridley develops a different analogy which I find beautifully clear, in his book Nature via Nurture. Most of the genome that we sequence is not the book of instructions, or master computer program, for building a human or a mouse, although parts of it are. If it were, we might indeed expect our program to be larger than the mouse's. But most of the genome is more like the dictionary of words available for writing the book of instructions —or, we shall soon see, the set of subroutines that are called by the master program. As Ridley says, the list of words in David Copperfield is almost the same as the list of words in The Catcher in the Rye. Both draw upon the vocabulary of an educated native speaker of English. What is completely different about the two books is the order in which those words are strung together.

When a person is made, or when a mouse is made, both embryologies draw upon the same dictionary of genes: the normal vocabulary of mammal embryologies. The difference between a person and a mouse comes out of the different orders with which the genes, drawn from that shared mammalian vocabulary, are deployed, the different places in the body where this happens, and its timing. All this is under the control of particular genes whose business it is to turn other genes on, in complicated and exquisitely timed cascades. But such controlling genes constitute only a minority of the genes in the genome.

Don't misunderstand 'order' as meaning the order in which the genes are strung out along the chromosomes. With notable exceptions, which we shall meet in the Fruit Fly's Tale, the order of genes along a chromosome is as arbitrary as the order in which words are listed in a vocabulary —usually alphabetical but, especially in phrase books for foreign travel, sometimes an order of convenience: words useful in airports; words useful when visiting the doctor; words useful for shopping, and so on. The order in which genes are stored on chromosomes is unimportant. What matters is that the cellular machinery finds the right gene when it needs it, and it does this using methods that are becoming increasingly understood. In the Fruit Fly's Tale, we'll return to those few cases, very interesting ones, where the order of genes arranged on the chromosome is non-arbitrary in something like the foreign phrase-book sense. For now, the important point is that what distinguishes a mouse from a man is mostly not the genes themselves, nor the order in which they are stored in the chromosomal 'phrase-book', but the order in which they are turned on: the equivalent of Dickens or Salinger choosing words from the vocabulary of English and arranging them in sentences.

In one respect the analogy of words is misleading. Words are shorter than genes, and some writers have likened each gene to a sentence. But sentences aren't a good analogy, for a different reason. Different books are not put together by permuting a fixed repertoire of sentences. Most sentences are unique. Genes, like words but unlike sentences, are used over and over again in different contexts. A better analogy for a gene than either a word or a sentence is a toolbox subroutine in a computer.

The computer I happen to be familiar with is the Macintosh, and it is some years since I did any programming so I am certainly out of date with the details. Never mind—the principle remains, and it is true of other computers too. The Mac has a toolbox of routines stored in ROM (Read Only Memory) or in System files permanently loaded at startup time. There are thousands of these toolbox routines, each one doing a particular operation, which is likely to be needed, over and over again, in slightly different ways, in different programs. For example the toolbox routine called ObscureCursor hides the cursor from the screen until the next time the mouse is moved. Unseen to you, the ObscureCursor 'gene' is called every time you start typing and the mouse cursor vanishes. Toolbox routines lie behind the familiar features shared by all programs on the Mac (and their imitated equivalents on Windows machines): pulldown menus, scrollbars, shrinkable windows that you can drag around the screen with the mouse, and many others.

The reason all Mac programs have the same 'look and feel' (that very similarity famously became the subject of litigation) is precisely that all Mac programs, whether written by Apple, or by Microsoft, or by anybody else, call the same toolbox routines. If you are a programmer who wishes to move a whole region of the screen in some direction, say following a mouse drag, you would be wasting your time if you didn't invoke the ScrollRect toolbox routine. Or if you want to place a check mark by a pulldown menu item, you would be mad to write your own code to do it. Just write a call of CheckItem into your program, and the job is done for you. If you look at the text of a Mac program, whoever wrote it, in whatever programming language and for whatever purpose, the main thing you'll notice is that it consists largely of invocations of familiar, built-in toolbox routines. The same repertoire of routines is available to all programmers. Different programs string calls of these routines together in different combinations and sequences.

The genome, sitting in the nucleus of every cell, is the toolbox of DNA routines available for performing standard biochemical functions. The nucleus of a cell is like the ROM of a Mac. Different cells, for example liver cells, bone cells and muscle cells, string 'calls' of these routines together in different orders and combinations when performing particular cell functions including growing, dividing, or secreting hormones. Mouse bone cells are more similar to human bone cells than they are to mouse liver cells—they perform very similar operations and need to call the same repertoire of toolbox routines in order to do so. This is the kind of reason why all mammal genomes are approximately the same size as each other—they all need the same toolbox. [Close quote.] —THE ANCESTOR’S TALE, pp. 183-185

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