The supreme court ruled on the Myriad genetics case this week and they unanimously held that genes from nature are not patentable. That’s the right decision.
The Justices in their decision demonstrated some pretty bad science illiteracy, however. Thinking the term cDNA means ‘composite DNA’ and not what it actually is: complementary DNA for instance. And Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion stating that he couldn’t affirm his knowledge or belief in the basic molecular biology underpinning the case even though he agreed with the ruling. These are 9 smart people with smart people working for them. And yet they demonstrated scientific illiteracy about some of the most basic of biology.
And they’re not the only ones. I have trouble conveying what I do for a living to friends as well. they’re not biologists. They don’t have the concerns of a scientist. they have their own careers to focus on. That said, I wish there was a standard knowledge base that nearly everyone had (this is true of more than just biology- I think everyone should know the order of the planets and that they go around the sun, which planets have moons, and how long the Earth takes to go around the sun as well as why we have seasons here on Earth).
So here are the molecular biology concepts I wish that everyone knew:
- A gene is a specific sequence of DNA on a chromosome (and genes can have many variations, or alleles, which are the raw material of natural selection and account for the different humans that exist, and the different organisms in nature).
- A chromosome can contain thousands of individual genes.
- Genes have DNA near them that determine whether they are switched on or off depending on contexts.
- When a gene is switched on, or expressed as we biologists say, they become messenger RNA (mRNA) that is single stranded, as opposed to the iconic double helix of DNA (the mRNA sequence is based on what biologists call the ‘coding strand’ of DNA).
- mRNA, after some processing, can be translated (read) into a protein which do all of the activities to build and maintain a cell.
- Some viruses, that have an RNA genome, such as HIV, have a gene called reverse transcriptase that makes a DNA copy from an RNA template. this is a complementary DNA, or cDNA. In the case of a virus, this allows the viral genome to be integrated into the host genome, to be awakened later.
- Reverse transcriptase has been isolated in many forms and can be used to make a DNA copy of a fully processed mRNA molecule. That is what Myriad made. In molecular biology research, making cDNA allows for easy quantification of gene expression level.
I’m probably not the greatest communicator of science, but these are the things I would like everyone to know. These ideas of basic genetics are the keys to the rest of modern biology.