Decoding humans

The beginning of twentieth century has been a breakthrough for understanding of the human heredity and biological information. This profoundly destabilizing scientific idea was that of the discovery of the gene. It is the representation of the irreducible unit of a larger whole — the gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. The understanding of why we are who we are — our looks and traits inherited from our parents and ancestors, and also of our health and why some diseases are hereditary.

In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts

— Poet Wallace Stevens

This poet refers to the deep structural mystery that runs through the language: to understand the meaning of a sentence you need to decipher the meaning of each of its component words; and yet the sentence is much more than just the words — it carries a meaning as a whole. This hierarchical organization is also inherent to biology: understanding it’s smallest part is crucial to understanding the whole; this is why genetics is such an important tool to understanding human functionality. A human is much more than their genes, but to understand a human you need to understand their genes (which is also a generality of all organisms). The genetic code is astoundingly simple: just one molecule — the DNA — that carries the information.

The concept of the gene or the human heredity started in 1860s. Various scholars like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle laid path through their writings for what would be discovered as the in the beginning of the twentieth century. The science of heredity was also of monumental importance for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The molecule, DNA is in the genes; the genes reside on chromosomes; humans have forty six chromosomes in total — twenty three from each parent; this entire set of genetic instructions is the genome. The human genome consists about 20000 to 25000 genes in total. The Human Genome Project started in 1999 provided a complete and accurate sequence of over 3 billion DNA which make up the total genes of humans. These sequences are import for medical research and has allowed researchers to begin to understand the blueprint for building a person. Over the last two decades, technology has advanced so rapidly that we are now not just studying about genetics but are altering the genetic code at a small scale to understand and how genes influence human identity or sexuality or temperament.

Stephen Friend, co-founder of Sage Bionetworks started The Resilience Project which is a massive effort to collect genetic material that will help decode genetic disorders. At TED 2014, he talked about The Resilience Project and their efforts in understanding the genetics for medical research of genetic disorders.

Understanding genetics is of vital importance which will have major impact in the field of medicine, biotechnology, and life sciences. We are human, and we are now understanding ourselves — one step at a time.

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