A challenge to the genetic interpretation of biology

Feb 19, 2014
A challenge to the genetic interpretation of biology
The inactive linear peptide molecule with a sequence of amino acids derived from the gene coding sequence folds to a protein. Credit: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Proteomics/Proteomics_and_Drug_Discovery/Protein_Aggregation

A proposal for reformulating the foundations of biology, based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics and which is in sharp contrast to the prevailing genetic view, is published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface under the title "Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology".

The authors, Arto Annila, Professor of physics at Helsinki University and Keith Baverstock, Docent and former professor at the University of Eastern Finland, assert that the prominent emphasis currently given to the gene in biology is based on a flawed interpretation of experimental genetics and should be replaced by more fundamental considerations of how the cell utilises energy. There are far-reaching implications, both in research and for the current strategy in many countries to develop personalised medicine based on genome-wide sequencing.

Is it in your genes?

By "it" we mean intelligence, sexual orientation, increased risk of cancer, stroke or heart attack, criminal behaviour, political preference and religious beliefs, etcetera. Genes have been implicated in influencing, wholly or partly, all these aspects of our lives by researchers. Genes cannot cause any of these features, although geneticists have found associations between specific genes and all of these features, many of which are entirely spurious and a few are fortuitous.

How can we be so sure?

When a gene, a string of bases on the DNA molecule, is deployed, it is first transcribed and then translated into a peptide – a string of amino acids. To give rise to biological properties it needs to "fold" into a protein.

This process consumes energy and is therefore governed by the 2nd law, but also by the environment in which the folding takes place. These two factors mean that there is no causal relationship between the original gene coding sequence and the biological activity of the protein.

Is there any empirical evidence to support this?

Yes, a Nordic study of twins conducted in 2000 showed there was no evidence that cancer was a "genetic" disease – that is – that genes play no role in the causation of cancer. A wider international study involving 50,000 identical twin pairs published in 2012, showed that this conclusion applied to other common disease as well. Since the sequencing of the human genome was completed in 2001 it has not proved possible to relate abnormal gene sequences to common diseases giving rise to the problem of the "missing heritability".

What is the essence of the reformulation?

At the most fundamental level organisms are energy-consuming systems and the appropriate foundation in physics is that of complex dissipative systems. As energy flows in and out and within, the complex molecular system called the cell, fundamental physical considerations, dictated by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, demand that these flows, called actions, are maximally efficient (follow the path of least resistance) in space and time. Energy exchanges can give rise to new emergent properties that modify the actions and give rise to more new emergent properties and so on. The result is evolution from simpler to more complex and diverse organisms in both form and function, without the need to invoke genes. This model is supported by earlier computer simulations to create a virtual ecosystem by Mauno Rönkkö of the University of Eastern Finland.

What implications does this have in practice?

There are many, but two are urgent.

  1. to assume that are unavoidable influences on our health and behaviour will distract attention from the real causes of disease, many of which arise from our environment;
  2. the current strategy towards basing healthcare on genome-wide sequencing, so called "personalised healthcare", will prove costly and ineffective.

What is personalised health care?

This is the idea that it will be possible to predict at birth, by determining the total DNA sequence (genome-wide sequence), health outcomes in the future and take preventive measures. Most European countries have research programmes in this and in the UK a pilot study with 100,000 participants is underway.

Explore further: Genetic screening identifies genes driving resistance with a guide RNA library

More information: "Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology." Arto Annila and Keith Baverstock. Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Protein coding 'junk genes' may be linked to cancer

Nov 17, 2013

By using a new analysis method, researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) in Sweden have found close to one hundred novel human gene regions that code for proteins. A number of these ...

In search of lost genes

Feb 17, 2014

It is well known that genes are passed from one generation to the next. In addition, new genes arise regularly, although the number of genes in a particular organism does not seem to increase. The paradox ...

Small non-coding RNAs could be warning signs of cancer

Feb 17, 2014

Small non-coding RNAs can be used to predict if individuals have breast cancer, conclude researchers who contribute to The Cancer Genome Atlas project. The results, which are published in EMBO Reports, indicate that differ ...

Recommended for you

The origin of the language of life

Dec 19, 2014

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

Quest to unravel mysteries of our gene network

Dec 18, 2014

There are roughly 27,000 genes in the human body, all but a relative few of them connected through an intricate and complex network that plays a dominant role in shaping our physiological structure and functions.

EU court clears stem cell patenting

Dec 18, 2014

A human egg used to produce stem cells but unable to develop into a viable embryo can be patented, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Feb 20, 2014
Bonkers. No one claims generic disease are all genes (or all envionment), and population genetics has long been why neo-darwinism was acceptable.

Thermodynamics seems more important for abiogenesis and, ultimately, metabolism.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.