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Although I’m probably only one of five people on the planet who have not read it, the blockbuster success The DaVinci Code is just another indication that we humans have an innate curiosity about codes and their relationships and meanings. This blog will take us into the ultimate code of them all: The Code of Life.
By general agreement, a code is a rule for converting a piece of information into another form or representation, not necessarily of the same type. For example, I often write computer programs, most often to do some particular job or another on my website. Most programmers refer to this a “writing code.” Computer programming code appears to the non-programmer as a series of arcane jottings and numbers, but to both the programmer and computer, this code is in reality a series of highly specific instructions, executed step by step, that result in the computer performing some real world action; perhaps posting a message to an internet bulletin board or sending along an email.
Since computer programs are often rather large affairs with many loops and computations, writing good computer code is a daunting -if at other times stimulating- pursuit. It can be reassuring to remember that at any moment in time only very simple, rather dumb things are happening. What makes the computer program so powerful is that all these simple dumb things are happening extremely fast with a tremendous degree of accuracy.
Very few computer programmers can ever claim to have written a perfect program straight off. There are too many places that things can go wrong, computers being the terribly literal creatures that they are. For example, a command that tells a computer to print Hello World! to the screen might look like this:
23. PRINT “Hello World!”;
Simple enough, eh? Like the way we humans typically read books (from front to back and top to bottom) computers execute code from the top down. Thus, our line of computer code is numbered 23, so we can assume that there are twenty odd lines of computer code in front that will be executed before our screen lights up with the words “Hello World!” Perhaps line 22 tells the computer to make the screen font red, in which case our “Hello World!” would be rendered in red colored type. If we remove that line and run the program again, our font color goes back to black.
Look at our line 23 again and you will notice that the phrase you see -- Hello World! -- is in quotes, because in our simple computer language putting a phrase in quotes tells the computer where is the beginning and end of what you want sent to the screen is located. Without this type of instruction, computers are actually quite dumb, and have to rely on us to tell them where the beginning and end of various human things lie. Also notice that at the end of the line is a semi-colon, which in our little computer language tells the computer that this is the end of that particular line of code, so move down one line and execute that command next.
Computers are so literal that a mistake of even one character can cause a program to malfunction. For example, if you saw this line:
23. PRIINT “Hello World!”;
You’d probably guess that something is supposed to be printed. However the computer does not see PRIINT as the equivalent of PRINT. On the other hand if your code looked like this:
23. PRINT “Hello Wurld!”;
The program would probably still execute, since as far as the computer is concerned the command is correct and it’s in quotes, so it assumes that this is probably what you wanted. Once the command is correct, the computer doesn’t care if you tell it to write “Hello Wurld” or “Kick Me”. As long as its own language is correct, the computer will chug happily along, performing its assigned tasks.
Like computers, first impressions, and that light switch on the bathroom wall, genetics is remarkably digit business: On-Off; Yes-No; Love-Hate. So even if it looks complicated at times, don’t be fooled: It’s not. Just remember, like computers, genetics is simply a lot of small things happening in a clear-cut manner and if you get perplexed or lost, just take a step or two backwards and start again.
The mechanism of the genome is surprisingly similar to our simple line of computer code; so simple in fact that I will provide you with an “executive summary” of the whole affair in just two paragraphs.
A molecule called DNA periodically assembles copies of various parts of itself that are called RNA. RNA then travels to other parts of the cell where it is read as an instruction template, assembling chains of amino acids into something very useful: protein molecules of delightfully complex three dimensional shapes that are most often a class of proteins called enzymes.
Enzymes are special speed-up molecules that greatly foster the production and metabolism of the body’s tissues and secretions. Without them many biochemical reactions would occur so slowly as effectively negate their value. Just think about the difference between soaking a dirt stain in plain water for four days, versus soaking it for four minutes in a solution of water and laundry detergent and you’ll get an appreciation for the action of enzymes.
Enzymes catalyze many of the reactions involving proteins, fats, carbohydrates and minerals. Hormones, mucus, neurotransmitters, you name it; they are all made from enzymes.
It sobering and a bit humbling, to ponder the fact that when we eat any kind of protein, we’re actually consuming the results of something’s DNA and some of their DNA as well. However we usually break down dietary proteins to their amino acid building blocks and start all over again.
Occasionally, wild molecular gyrations occur as the incredibly DNA long molecule prepares to replicate by winding itself up tighter and tighter on a tubular scaffold of its own creation. Splitting from the ends much like an old Manila hemp rope would, each of the two unraveling single strands then begins to assemble a copy of its missing partner, producing two unique strands of DNA and creating two daughter replicas from one original.
What happens is surprisingly simple. Good things are like that; a strong underpinning of fact and analysis, and a veneer of simplicity and common sense. Now why, on the other hand, is quite a different story.
Too see how complex we are & that the tiniest variation can make a huge change reminds me of the Bible verse "We are fearfully & wonderfully made." Studying genes & DNA is so interesting, but the average person can't grasp it all. Thank you, Dr. D, for helping us put your research into practical use.
As for computers, thanks for using them to such good for humanity!
Maybe our DNA is more "simple" than that of other things because we are more elegant and more efficient.... like a well written program. Well, at least I am more efficient genetically! LOL!
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