My friend and Clarion West classmate David emailed me a link to this article. How amusing, that the story titled “Junk” that I sold only a couple of weeks ago, to Nature, had an eerily familiar proposition, at bottom. Do I get to claim I “got one right,” even if it’s published after the news broke? I wrote it last winter!
But then, as David commented about his own suspicions, it’s long been imagined by some — me included — that the majority of the genome being “junk” is questionable. As I wrote to David:
Of course, there were people suggesting this before, and I’ve long suspected that “junk” DNA wasn’t “junk.” It’s too 1950s to imagine that our genetic structure would be so simple as to have one single blueprint without redundancy built in. Of course, we couldn’t be [imaginatively] equipped to figure that out until we were depending on, well, at the very least an electrical grid that could break down. Robustness sixty years ago meant walking instead of driving your car when it breaks down. Now, we know about how to make systems that work even despite partial breakdowns, and whaddaya know, we start seeing it in biology now that the concept’s there.
Which makes me wonder what other technological problems will trigger new scientific insights say, 50 years from now. :)
On further thought, I think I’m wrong about the human notion of robust systems emerging whole cloth from the spurt in techno-dependency of the mid-20th century; I imagine that the design of massive oceangoing vessels, and of cable systems, and so on in the 19th century and before, and even in the design of weapons earlier than that, had elements of thinking about robustness. But in dealing with highly complex systems that need to be robust enough to continue to function through multiple minor malfunctions, it seems to me power grids, but most especially the Net, is what’s transformed our thinking. The old notion of the genome was very industrial-era; the new one is very data-store. We’re definitely still missing pieces, though. Maybe what we learn in studying DNA will affect computation, in the next spurt? Or maybe vice-versa.
This is why imagining near-future science and tech is so difficult… and so fun.