Tim Lott: It's a breakthrough. I can feel it in my... chromosomes, is it?

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The Independent Online

When I woke up Friday morning I was absolutely thrilled with the news on the radio. Something very, very important had happened in some laboratory somewhere. It was Dr Craig Venter, head of the research team who had been studying the thing, relaying the scoop to John Humphrys:

"We've described the largest man-made molecule of a defined structure. It's a chromosome, a genome from a bacteria that's roughly of 575,000 base pairs."

"You've lost me already," said Humphrys. Venter sighed.

"We sequenced," he said patiently, "determined the genetic code of a bacterial genome and then we went from the genetic code in the computer starting with four bottles of chemicals to remake that chromosome entirely synthetically in the laboratory!"

Humphrys' courage ran out. Rather than uttering the necessary admission, "I still don't know what the bloody hell you're talking about," he moved on to the ethics of creating artificial life (for this was the Very Important Thing), rather than the mechanics.

So rather than feel thrilled I just felt stupid. Because I don't really know what a chromosome is, although I have a strong suspicion it has something to do with a gene, which might or might not be the same as a genome, which I think are incy tiny things that somehow "carry" all the information that determines how living things are built.

The genomes, or genes, or is it chromosomes? All have these little swirly things in them which are very, very long, although really small, called DNA, which are the "blueprint for life", whatever that means.

All this stuff is found in cells but I'm not, to be truthful, absolutely sure what a cell is either, although I think it is a bit like a living molecule but, unlike a molecule, although rather like a rockery, it has a little wall. Anyway, it appears this chromosome, or genome, has been taken from a bacteria and put into an empty cell, like a dangerous prisoner.

Why a bacteria? What is a bacteria, anyway? If they are so useful, why are we always trying to kill them? And is it really creating life to strip a genome from a bacteria, copy it and stick it back in a cell? Isn't that just copying life?

The thing is, though, it's wonderful, isn't it, eh? Why? Well, I suppose because we can now possibly create biofuels (not quite sure how little bits of bacteria can grow into something you can stick in a car engine) but, on the other hand, it's really bad because we are creating Frankenstein bacteria that are going to run amok and kill us all in our beds.

Anyway, John, I'm with you 100 per cent. I'm a bit lost, too, and it's not as if I haven't been to the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum (which is meant to explain this sort of thing) about 50 times with my kids. I've also read Natalie Angier's The Canon and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and no one can say that I don't know my leptons from my neutrinos. But when it comes to biology, my knowledge is sub-bacterial and so is everybody else's I know.

With brilliant series on television such as Atom, and E=mc2 – A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, public understanding of physics has taken quantum leaps. Understanding of life science, in the meantime, remains stuck grimly at 1950s levels.

We urgently need an academic who really, really understands how truly baffled the general public are about biology to explain it to us in words of one syllable (or possibly base pairs). I have no idea who that man is. Only that, ideally, it shouldn't be Dr Craig Venter.