Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Humans 1 Potatoes 2

In today's Metro you may have seen a piece showing that the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, of whom we are very proud, have just completed sequencing the Spud Genome. My title today refers to the comforting fact that it turns out potatoes have got roughly double the number of active genes as you have.

Why do I find this comforting? Well, it's just another demonstration that the cultural assumption that humans must be the most complex of nature's creations because we're (allegedly) the smartest...is based on a false paradigm of "evolution as an advance in complexity" with us at the top of the pyramid.

It's what Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift". Suddenly, everything looks different because the frame of reference within which we interpret the world has been irrevocably altered by the genome's eye view that has been emerging into "viewability"over the last twenty years.

That which was carved in stone now comes with quotation marks round it. There are some, like the philosopher John Dupree who is attached to this forum at the Exeter branch - "Egenis", check him/them out - who would have it that it is becoming less and less meaningful to talk about "genes" at all.

Which has got what to do with the price of potatoes? Well, the lovely little things are afflicted every so often with virulent and catastrophic crop failure...and having a DNA map may well be useful in understanding and dealing with that...Potatoes are the third most important carbohydrate source we've got. (After rice and wheat).

And if someone could do for rice what Norman Borlog did for wheat back in the sixties (some deft hybrid making...dwarf wheat it's called, and it has saved millions of lives) then that might give us some options when the environmental whip comes down.

(And, yes...that's going on too in a lab near you)

Finally, I have been reminded by correspondents that the number of areas of possible human interest opened up by my having this opportunity are, pragmatically speaking, limitless. My choice of focus has to partly be driven by circumstance as well as volition. But please keep suggestions coming.

One of these circumstances is that another of my colleagues here, Steve Sturdy, is chairing a discussion at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Oren Harman, who has written a biography of George Price called "The Price of Altruism".

This is, even at a glance, an extraordinary story...into which I'm going to be delving over the next couple of weeks. It's all about altruism...the puzzle of kindness...of selfless behaviour...and the attempt Price made to mathematically reconcile "good" with the imperatives of natural selection...

To put it another way, it's asking what sound you get when you bang two paradigms together.

I'll let you know what I hear...and keep you updated about our next Gene Therapy Session at the Traverse Bar.

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