Are Genes the Software of Life?

Date(s) - 30 Jan 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM

U of A Centennial Hall

Jan. 30: Are Genes the Software of Life?

By Dr. Fernando D. Martinez, director, BIO5 Institute; director, Arizona Respiratory Center; Swift-McNear Professor of Pediatrics and Regents’ Professor

The last 20 years have been marked by an astonishing growth in our knowledge about the molecules that make up living things. Among those molecules, none has attracted more attention than DNA. The DNA code of hundreds of life forms has been sequenced. This code contains not only information needed to assemble all proteins; a myriad of bits and pieces of DNA also are involved in controlling when proteins are built and destroyed.

It is thus not surprising that DNA has been called the software of life, but the metaphor breaks down when we look more closely. Contrary to any reputable software, small random “errors” are introduced in the code each time DNA is copied in order to be transmitted to the next generation. Most often, these changes have no effect whatsoever. Almost all the remaining changes are deleterious and most likely are the cause of the many diseases that affect many human beings at some point in their lives. But a small portion of these random “errors” allow those who carry them to better adapt to the environment in which they live. And the fast and slow accumulation of those favorable “errors” is what ultimately gave rise to the immensely successful history of life on the planet.

Two indispensable conclusions arise: First, disease often is caused by the same mechanism, random mutation, that allowed us to become conscious beings, and, therefore, those of us who are healthy and can pursue happiness have a basic biological and ethical debt toward those who are not; second, the massive changes that we are introducing into the environment are making many of us sick simply because our ancestors never saw them and thus never “adopted the right genes” for them. Contrary to all other species that ever existed, therefore, we are increasingly putting our future as a species in our own hands.

The University of Arizona College of Science‘s popular spring lecture serieswill present six free lectures exploring the astonishing advances in genomics research. The first lecture will be on Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in Centennial Hall on the UA campus.

From Gregor Mendel’s discovery of the laws of heredity to the recognition of DNA as life’s critical molecular “key,” scientists have probed the role of this remarkably complex material and the code it contains. Their findings continue to expand our understanding of life.

With the genetic code of hundreds of life forms now sequenced and geometrically larger genomic datasets publicly available, scientists are able to advance research into the genetic roots of disease, how global viral pandemics occur, how transformative agricultural research can help feed our planet’s growing population, how environmental influences affect individual development, and how genetic mutation and variation impact survival at the species level.

This year’s corresponding teacher education program for science teachers at the 6-12 grade levels has filled. Research Corporation for Science Advancement funds tuition for the program, which provides two hours of graduate credit.

All the Genomics Now lectures are free and open to the public. The lectures will be held at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. on the UA campus. Parking is available on a pay-per-use basis in the Tyndall Avenue Garage, 880 E. Fourth St.

Funding for the College of Science Spring 2013 Lecture Series is provided by the Arizona Daily Star; Carondelet Health Network; Galileo Circle; Godat Design; Holualoa Companies; Miraval Resort & Spa; Raytheon; Research Corporation for Science Advancement; Tucson Electric Power; and Ventana Medical Systems, Inc.