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The Code of Life

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 - 10:55 AM

DNA sequence (gaetanlee/flickr)

The genes of all living things are made of DNA. And DNA is made of four chemicals, called A, T, C, and G. These days, scientists can read those 'letters' of DNA for any creature (including you and me). And they can make strands of DNA from jars of A, T, C, and G. In fact, scientists now have databases of thousands of different genes, written in letters, for functions like 'glow in the dark,' or 'metabolize glucose,' or any number of traits or talents.

All of this raises an interesting question: If the genetic 'recipe' for making any gene or creature is just a string of letters, then are genes just information, like software code? Are the talents or traits that come from genes like software programs that can be loaded into a living thing? Well, Richard Dawkins thinks so:

What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology. It is pure information. It's digital information. It's precisely the kind of information that can be translated digit for digit, byte for byte, into any other kind of information and then translated back again. This is a major revolution. I suppose it's probably 'the' major revolution in the whole history of our understanding of ourselves.

This quote comes from a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter, which you can check out on the website Edge.

In our upcoming show, (So-Called) Life, we play around with this idea, and Robert talks to Craig Venter about making new life from scratch. The show is already airing in some places and will be available for download in the next couple weeks.


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Comments [12]

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May. 05 2014 01:58 PM
Peter from Boston

I just caught the last 20 minutes of this show on NPR Now (Sirius). Basically what we are talking about here is Frankenstein's monster in spades. Let's see, microbes that eat sugar and spit out diesel fuel. You don't think there's any chance that these might get out of the lab and turn our bodies of water into diesel do you? Nahhh! Could never happen - what could go wrong? "Electricity too cheap to meter" - yeah right. Taken this to the nth degree (nuclear weapons, anyone?) someone will eventually "prefect" this technology and produce Aliens (as in the movie "Alien") - highly adaptive, intelligent, stealthy, hostile and extremely violent creatures that would put an end to human kind. Nice. You can be sure if we can do it, we will do it. Just like Oppenheimer and the gang couldn't contain themselves resulting in a world full of nuclear weapons (approx 20,000 currently), these gene-madmen will mutate monsters of one kind or another. You can be sure of it. The renowned statesman and ambassador, George F. Kennan had it right when he said mankind must never attempt to manipulate our genetics nor the weather. Fat chance of that wisdom being heeded I'm afraid. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should do anything or everything. Nuclear weapons haven't been fired in anger (or by mistake or miscalculation) yet (well, two), but that doesn't mean that they won't be fired. We already have enough problems in this world and don't need even more arrogance and hubris polluting our fragile planet. Enough already.

Mar. 24 2013 07:26 PM
Madison Honda from Honoka'a,Hamakua,Big Island,Hawaii

Look up so called life in the search to watch the full podcast.

Jan. 20 2013 09:01 PM
Lovest from Long Beach, CA

I just caught a piece of the re-broadcast. I am desperate to find a podcast of the show. Can someone PLEASE send me a pointer to it?

Nov. 19 2011 01:12 PM
Cary O

I just heard this episode in a rebroadcast this week. It was disconcerting to hear young scientists who made e-coli smell nice for their convenience. They were oblivious to the possible consequences of this one simple act. Making a poison smell like mint is an act of idiocy. What if this strain were to escape the lab? Lots of nice smelling dead people. All of nature works the way it does for a reason. We are repulsed by foul smells because we are supposed to be. Showing this little insight and having so much power is a deadly combination.

Feb. 23 2011 03:10 PM

I enjoyed this show. I must remember to point it out to my friend who's getting her PHd in biology. She can't seem to understand why fiction has a lot of 'mad scientists tampering with God's domain'.

Rhizome: as a 39 year old (who eats Grape Nuts, btw), I found the Radiolab's editing to be, at first, slightly annoying. A few listens and I was hooked. The weaving and the movement of sound help keep your brain on its toes. If you desire more information and less entertainment, listen to a TED lecture, or just read Scientific American.

As far as being 'asleep at the wheel' when dealing with these 'mad scientists', I think Radiolab was just trying to present information and let the listener decide whether the scientists actions are moral/ethical or not; prompt us to ask questions of ourselves and our own morality as well of those of others.


Mar. 18 2008 08:59 AM

Your format, w/ all the edits and bells and whistles, is annoying beyond description; it seems targeted at kids hyped-up on sugary breakfast cereals. As for this show in particular, you were asleep at the wheel anent challenging the terrifying and ethically bankrupt doofuses who muck around with life forms for kicks, just a bunch of "Gee, golly" on your part.

Mar. 16 2008 08:05 AM
pizza engineer

amazable shew!
butt whut aboute EPA-geneticles!?!
yuo knoww the mysterius littler jeans sewn in to the bigga blue jeans ov life!
how cums no talks about thats?
notice differences in identical twins
why don't cha!?!
grate broads of cast!

Mar. 15 2008 01:41 AM
Ivo Stainoff

Wow! What an unbelievably stimulating show! This episode feels like cerebral fireworks!
Thanks to the Universe for WNYC for producing such a compelling and mind altering program!

Mar. 14 2008 10:29 PM
Bob Herman

As Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel said "well, you did it again". Great show!
I feel as though RadioLab has become an addiction for me. I look forward to each Friday's new show with great smiles and hungry expectations. Is there a 12-step program to counter the effects of RadioLab addicts?
Thanks again and keep those shows coming.

Mar. 14 2008 03:04 PM

"You can't make a racehorse of a pig."
"No, but you can make a very fast pig."

-Steinbeck, East of Eden

Mar. 14 2008 02:28 PM

A truly amazing thing about DNA from an IT perspective, is that a single chunk of DNA can at the same time be BOTH data AND program code, plus possibly instructions for the "compiler" that runs the code (think enzymes, ribosomes, etc needed for the cell to convert the DNA code into proteins).

Mar. 13 2008 12:14 PM

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