It has been just over a decade since the human genome was sequenced. Now that we know the "code of life" cures for all sorts of maladies like cancer, birth defects and even aging are just around the corner, right? A missing or mutated gene causes a problem so provide the protein it would have produced or suppress the errant one it does or even use a virus to replace the faulty or missing gene with a new one, right? Well, it might have worked out like that if what everybody knew about DNA and gene regulation was true. Instead the discoveries of the last ten years have exploded one dogma after another and left many scientists despairing that life may be impossibly, incomprehensibly complex.
One of the biggest "Huh?!" moments came with the announcement by the folks running the ENCODE project that all that non-coding DNA, the allegedly meaningless flotsam and jetsam of 3 billion years of evolution, was, in fact, coding little bits of RNA which turned out to play mysterious yet essential regulatory roles.
And one of the most depressing "Uh Oh" moments seemed to come collectively when one day everyone began to look at all the pretty graphical images of signaling pathways, which look like a snapshot of the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display, and to realize that just as a Martian could study such pictures forever and still never understand why we were shooting off fireworks, likewise researchers could never comprehend what was going on in a living organism just by studying simple causal nexuses.
There is an excellent write-up of these issues at Nature in a special and free report called "The Human Genome at Ten". Read it.
Yet just because things have turned out to be vastly more complex than hoped for and expected that doesn’t mean truth can’t at least be more closely approximated. More and more it’s beginning to look to me like modular computer programming is a better metaphor for these biological processes than the older purely reductionist one. If so then most of what’s going on research-wise today is replacing "FOR N = 1 TO 100" with "FOR N = 1 TO 85" and then trying to figure out just where, and what, in the game just got a little bit more or less likely. Once the principle, the function, of a cluster of effects is understood perhaps maladies like cancer will at last begin to yield to the enormous amount of effort expended. If so then perhaps the following is the better quote about wisdom:
"Patience is the companion of wisdom" – Saint Augustine