Tag Archives: human genome

What Is Your DNA Doing For You Right Now?

clock

Ever since its structure was unraveled in the early Fifties, DNA has been considered the mastermind of the cell. Sitting in splendid isolation in the cell’s nucleus, DNA encodes all of life. It sends duplicates of itself (RNA) to direct the manufacture of proteins; and proteins, as high-school biology teaches, are the building blocks of the cell. In terms of biological machinery. The genetic picture has gotten more and more sophisticated ever since.

But something doesn’t look quite right here. If every cell is a biological robot, and the entire body is made up of cells, then we must be biological robots too. This view, which a surprising number of geneticists believe in, cannot be true. It is a conclusion that the old model of DNA supported because that model was reductionist–that is, all complex processes can be explained by breaking them down into more basic processes. The whole approach is totally logical, but nobody can seriously claim that the works of Shakespeare and Mozart are explainable by protein manufacture. And in our daily lives we think thoughts and feel emotions, which proteins don’t, or cells for that matter.

As a result, genetics has been racing to catch up with human reality. On several fronts there has been progress, of a sort. So-called Systems Biology has emerged to examine how the body works as a dynamic, changing organism responding to input from the environment. In this way DNA stopped being so rigid and got into the game. On another front a field known as epigenetics began to study how everyday experience, including our lifestyle and memory, actually gets chemically imprinted on our genes. Again, DNA became more dynamic and responsive.

But while DNA was getting liberated, what was really happening? One could argue that the only thing changing was a scientific model. Reality wasn’t changing at all. Now it is dawning that DNA is fundamentally so mysterious, biology can’t even contain it, much less explain it. The crack in mainstream genetics came from the huge shock administered by the Human Genome Project, which discovered, to widespread dismay, that the complexity of human life came down to only 20,000 genes. This number was ridiculously small, about 20% of the previous guesstimate. To quote geneticist John Mattick, “that number is tiny. It’s effectively the same as a microscopic worm that has just 1,000 cells.” Continue reading

Deepak Chopra: Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box (Part 11)

Daybreak at Gale Crater

Click here to read Part 10!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

In our last post we explored how your body and brain are not just your body and brain – from a 21st-century scientific perspective, you are also a teeming community composed of single-cell organisms. A tiny portion of the body are human cells (yours) while perhaps a hundred times more are mostly bacteria and archaea, known all together as the microbiome. Let’s go several steps further into this scientific re-examination of this thing you call your body.

Intellectually you know that your body today isn’t the same as the body you had in the past. But if you tune in, you generally feel the present you in continuity with yesterday’s you and all the others going back to childhood. You can imagine even going back to a fetus in the womb and the fertilized ovum from which the fetus grew. That first egg and sperm are derived without interruption from your parents’ living bodies. There is no gap where the life of your mother and father stopped and yours began. The flow of life is seamless back to your mother’s womb, and further back as far as human ancestry can go.

Even as we cross species boundaries in our backward journey, to Homo erectus and Homo habilis, our distant forebears, there are no gaps in life, not between you and hominids roaming the African savannah millions of years ago, not between you and the earliest single-cell organisms that were the first emerging life forms on our planet. So you can think of yourself as one living being. You may feel separate in space, occupying a warm and cozy apartment that is unlike a primordial pond covered in blue-green algae. But think about how your skin sheds cells, not just dead epidermal cells but living bacteria that coat your skin in a fine layer. They have separated from you, and yet they are still you. This apparent separation is only in space. In time, there is no separation, there is continuity extending over eons, and time is where we live.

By expanding “you” beyond a package of skin and bones that was born on a certain day and will die one day in the future, you merge with the flow of life as a whole. In other words, you have adopted the perspective of life itself. How old are you, then? At the everyday level of scale you count how many candles there are on your last birthday cake. But take in the 400 trillion microorganisms that are the largest biological part of “you.” Single cells can only reproduce by division. One amoeba divides in two. These aren’t the amoeba’s children. They are simply it, split in half. In a very real sense, all the amoebas alive today are the first amoeba, and the same goes for all the trillions of micro-organisms that occupy your body (and are necessary for it to survive, as we saw in previous posts. They aren’t free riders).

As “you” expand, boundaries melt away. Since the entire mass of animal and plant life on Earth traces back to single-cell creatures, “you” are one enormous 3.5-billion-year-old being. Separation in space makes each of us think we are individuals. And we are. But the continuum of time at the cellular scale reveals an equal reality: we are united as a single biological being. In fact, the continuity of life becomes stronger as we move to even smaller and smaller scales, where seamless properties essential to life are already present. Which means that the properties of “you” – intelligence, self-organization, evolution, and a seamless flow of life – exist at all scales.

Consider the molecular and atomic levels of scale. There is no atom in your body that did not derive from something eaten, drunk, or breathed from the substance of the planet. Whether we talk about the “you” that is sitting in a chair reading this sentence or the “you” that is a single enormous 3.5-billion-year-old being, neither lives on the planet – in a sense they are the planet. Your living body is the self-organization of the substance of the Earth itself – minerals, water, and air – into zillions of life forms. Earth plays Scrabble, forming different words as the letters are recombined (in this case, genetic letters), and although some words, like “human,” run away to live on their own, they forget who owns the game.

If “you” are a recreational pastime for the planet, what does it have in mind for its next move? Games involve a lot of repetition, but there has to be novelty as well, with records to break and highest scores to shatter. Earth decided that “you” needed a new playing field. At one level, the Mars probe named Curiosity can be viewed as a separate human achievement, and a very complex one. It involved skilled, clever engineers and scientists who figured out how to make a robot, propel it to another world, have it land, and then send information back to us.

But there’s another way of looking at it. Just as reasonably, logically, and scientifically, our living planet Earth has been working toward reaching out to touch its neighbor, Mars, for 3.5 billion years (at least). It has taken this long for Earth to create living things out of its own substance that could eventually figure out how to take more of the same substance, fashion it into a rocket and a robot, and take “you” off planet. (In the case of the moon, “you” actually landed on it, yourself.)

While “you,” focused on the separate self, were busy discovering fire, inventing agriculture, writing sacred texts, making war, having sex, and other survival stratagems, Earth was busy organizing, through these activities, landing on the moon and tapping Mars on the shoulder. If this image strikes you as being too fanciful, look at the activity of your brain. You are conscious of having a purpose in mind when you walk, talk, work, and love. But it is undeniable that many brain activities are unconscious (e.g., controlling body temperature, growth, blood pressure), while the activity of the brain as a whole is totally unknown, either by you or any single region of your brain. Whatever makes Earth a totality makes your brain a totality. Therefore, it isn’t fanciful to think of Earth as moving in a coherent, unified direction, just as your brain has from the moment you were born.

Or to put it in a word, if you (as a person) have a purpose, then you (as life on Earth) have a purpose. The two are seamless, even if it suits our pride, and our unfathomable ego, to stand above and separate from our surroundings. Where does that leave mind? Mind is something that condenses in some spaces, expands in others, functioning at everyday levels of scale, planetary levels of scale, and microscopic levels of scale. The smallest aspects of mind can be contained within larger aspects, just as molecules are contained within cells that are contained within bodies, and so on.

Science in the 21st century builds upon its long-held ambition to comprehend the very smallest and largest scales of Nature, and it was always hoped – even taken for granted – that a set of fixed principles would suffice for the whole journey of discovery. That hope broke down when Newton’s set of laws didn’t fit the quantum world. Now the set of rules in the quantum world don’t fit the latest problems, such as what came before the Big Bang, the origin of life, and the appearance of mind in the universe. In this post we’ve been arguing that “you” exist no matter how large or small the scale under consideration. You are beyond any horizons of scale, any boundaries that your mind believes exist. The Vedas speak of Brahman (reality) being bigger than the biggest and smaller than the smallest In modern terminology, this means “you.” We’ll finish in the next post with the mind-blowing conclusions that such reasoning leads to.

(To be cont.)

* * *

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books translated into over 35 languages with over twenty New York Times bestsellers.  Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York.  www.neiltheise.com  neiltheise.wordpress.com

Deepak Chopra: Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box (Part 9)

Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth - Blue Marble 2012Click here to read Part 8!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

The title of this series of posts is both a declaration (the mind is not contained exclusively within the brain) and an invitation – to think creatively about the nature of your mind. You no longer have to imprison your mind inside your skull, or anywhere else in the body, in fact. There are other ways to imagine and experience it. We’ve provided many clues that mind extends outside the body, which implies that your own mind, as you experience it, may exist without boundaries. As we demonstrated, contemplative practitioners in many traditions point to experiences of mind that extend beyond the body, to encompass the universe as a whole.

Your brain doesn’t determine your mind. Brain and mind are recreating each other with every act of perception. Moreover, with training, you can learn to experience your mind in parts of your body beyond the enclosure inside your skull, perhaps experiencing it even as filling your body. We’ve been offering factual evidence to avoid the trap of metaphysics or unfounded speculation, since science so deeply distrusts metaphysics. Has the evidence made you curious about what your mind really is? There’s a huge difference between two pictures of reality. One picture describes a clockwork brain that evolved mechanistically from a random universe. The other describes a conscious universe where one expression is the human mind.

If you accept the second story – as we do – it leads to a mind-blowing conclusion: the universe is thinking, feeling, and acting through you. You exist so that the universe has a new outlet for knowing itself. (Surely this makes you curious!) As was said by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan,

The Sufi says this whole universe was made in order that God might know Himself. The seed wished to realize what it is, what is in it, and therefore became the tree.

If you and I are embedded in a conscious universe, a leap toward freedom can be made. Unfortunately, most people use their brains in a habitual way. Day in and day out, the brain repeats the same patterns of habitual ideas (someone once estimated that 90% of the thoughts we have today are repetitions of the thoughts we had yesterday). Habitual ideas are imprinted in you by prevailing cultural assumptions, including those that derive from science and its purely materialist view of the world. If you are a materialist, the universe couldn’t possibly be thinking (not that this notion bothers the universe – it has time to wait until a better belief system comes along).

We do not seek to convince you of anything in these posts but to stir up the urge to seek your own answers. For example, do you accept that your mind works like a computer, which would make the brain a kind of biological hardware (what one expert in artificial intelligence dubbed “a computer made of meat”)? The brain-as-computer idea can be exploded by asking, has a computer ever been curious? Has a computer ever been in love? Has it ever had urges or given into temptation? These aspects of mind are innate in human beings and are not computational.

Now that you are thinking outside the (skull) box, what if we can expand your sense of self beyond your skin? When you say “my body,” you probably mean this body made of approximately 4 trillion human cells, each of which contains your genes. But is that really your body? On close inspection, your body is lined, over the surface of the skin and throughout the digestive tract by 100 times as many cells, if not more, that aren’t “yours” at all, in that they do not contain your ancestral genes. They are microbial cells, part of what scientists now refer to as the microbiome – your second genome, so to speak. These include both bacteria and other single- celled creatures known as archaea. You are, in essence, composed of colonies of human and non-human cells living in harmonious balance.

Outnumbering “your” cells by a hundred to, these micro-organisms aren’t just passive riders or conveyers of disease. Quite the contrary- these trillions of bacteria convey your health. For example, if we grow mice in an “abiotic” environment in which there are no bacteria (or if we have a boy who has to be raised in a bubble because he has a rare disorder, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency syndrome, and cannot control infections), the digestive tract can’t function properly. The microscopic, finger-like projections, or microvilli, that line the intestinal wall don’t form. Without them, you don’t have enough gut surface area to accomplish the digestion and absorption of nutrition. By adding back in the helpful bacteria that normally line the intestines, the microvilli arise.

(To be cont.)

* * *

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books translated into over 35 languages with over twenty New York Times bestsellers. Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center – Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com

Deepak Chopra: The Higher Health — A New Map for Prevention

Wellness seems to have reached a plateau in America and other wealthy industrialized countries. The information about how to prevent many kinds of lifestyle disorders, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, has been widely distributed. Longevity steadily increases. Advanced research on incurable diseases moves forward, if only by small increments.

You might think that the picture of health is clear. All we need is two things to achieve wellness for almost everyone: more compliance and a major leap in genetics.

The first is certainly true. America’s obesity epidemic isn’t improving because the information about how to reverse it didn’t lead to motivation. The same is true for the other standard points of prevention, such as a reduced fat diet, less red meat, more vegetables, lower salt and sugar, and more fiber. The government can jiggle the food pyramid, but that won’t matter as long as Americans haven’t stepped on to the pyramid in the first place. The same goes for exercise, since only a small minority of adults get even the minimum amount to promote good health.

But this post isn’t a scolding about compliance. It’s the second part of wellness – waiting for genetics to deliver amazing cures and new wonder drugs – that is not a promise likely to be kept. If we want to rise above the plateau where we find ourselves, we actually have to reverse the promise of genetics. Instead of waiting for science, each of us must learn to influence our genes in a new way.

Ten years ago, with the map of the human genome in hand, researchers ran eagerly after magic bullets, that is, simple treatments for fixing damaged genes or “bad” genes that were causing everything from cancer and type 1 diabetes to obesity and smoking, not to mention mental disorders like depression and free-floating anxiety, both of which are reaching epidemic proportions.

No one is talking about magic bullets anymore, for the genetic map, combined with imaging techniques like the MRI and CT scans, revealed the opposite of what everyone wanted to find. Instead of simple genetic connections, there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of genes involved in various disorders. Even to find fixed sets of these genes has proved elusive. Each individual seems to possess unique patterns of genetic influence.  Now medicine realizes that breast cancer, for example, isn’t one disease but dozens. Faced with such unforeseen complications, the hope for genetic cures, while still alive, has become ten times more complex.

Yet in a different way the human genome has opened the door for the higher health. We now realize that our genes are far more flexible, changeable, and easily influenced by lifestyle choices. This post is too short for me to detail how such a revolutionary change occurred in genetic thinking, so I will only point to the findings of Dr. Dean Ornish, the country’s most respected advocate for heart prevention, which indicate that improving your diet, exercise, and stress levels leads to improved genetic output from 400 to 500 genes.

This indicates that standard prevention has a real physiological basis, which is good news. Compliance is more than ever the wisest choice. But the new view of genetic flexibility points much further. You are in a constant conversation with every cell in your body, meaning that at the molecular level, every thoughts and action has consequences. It has become clear that genes are eavesdropping on every detail of life, including not just diet and exercise but your moods, beliefs, and every experience that registers in the mind.

In other words, you can be the controller of your body’s trillions of cells, and the control switch lies in consciousness. Higher health depends on taking advantage of this breakthrough idea.  Far beyond the placebo effect and psychosomatic illness, beyond faith healing and spontaneous remissions, the mind has unlimited potential for achieving a higher vision of wellness, as we’ll discuss in the next post

(To be cont.)

www.deepakchopra.com

Follow Deepak on Twitter

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...