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Molecular Biology in the Information Age

November 14, 2013

by Mariano Alvarez

There’s a revolution happening in biology. You’ve probably already heard about it, at least in part. Maybe you’ve heard the doctor on TV talking about personalized medicine. Or the commercial that promises to sequence your DNA. Or the news article about something called epigenetics. Those are all pieces of it, but it’s bigger than any one of them. Advances in molecular biology have changed the way that scientists can collect information, and it’s changing the way that we think about the study of life.

To explain why, I’ll start with a little history. Before the mid-1990s, looking at organisms on a molecular scale was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Scientists had to use complicated, costly procedures to get even the smallest bits of information about the genes and proteins of an organism. You might remember the Human Genome Project – it took ten years just to figure out the whole DNA sequence of a human being. And forget about taking this kind of thing outside – molecular techniques were often reserved for tightly controlled laboratory studies.

Today, we can sequence a whole genome in a single day. And instead of costing $3 billion, as the Human Genome Project did, it costs a few thousand dollars. Because molecular techniques like sequencing are now available to everyone, everyone is doing it – which means we have an explosion of new information. And with all of this new information, we can start to draw new conclusions. So instead of looking at the effect of a single gene, we can look at the effect of a whole network of genes together. Instead of just seeing how a protein works, we can look at how it interacts with all of the other proteins in the cell. We can even put these layers together by looking at all of the proteins and genes at the same time. When we can see all of these layers of interactions together across dozens or hundreds of individuals, we start to see emergent patterns and processes that would have otherwise been invisible.

The molecular revolution is already bearing its first fruits. The Human Genome Project has given way to the 1000 Genomes project, which aims to identify small changes in DNA across one thousand individuals. The ENCODE project is an even more ambitious venture, seeking to catalogue every functional piece of the human genome with the help of cutting-edge molecular techniques. And the focus isn’t solely on humans – the boundaries of plant biology, for example, are being pushed by efforts to catalogue molecular elements and pathways in Arabidopsis thaliana, a well-known model for plants. Efforts like these are the first crucial forays into the new world of molecular biology, where the combination of information and technology reveals a microscopic landscape as complicated and intricate as the macroscopic one.

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