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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea