Sylvia Pagán Westphal on “High Hopes for a New Kind of Gene”

Sylvia Pagán Westphal on “High Hopes for a New Kind of Gene”

Sylvia Pagán Westphal is the author of "High Hopes for a New Kind of Gene." (Christoph Westphal)

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Definitely going to his house. It’s really spectacular—this man truly lives inside a museum. He walked me through the whole house and I remember thinking it was sad that he barely got to enjoy all those treasures, since he is rarely ever home.

What would you say surprised you the most about microRNA, how it was discovered or how it’s being studied?

For sure how it was discovered, since it shattered such a basic dogma of biology. When I went to graduate school we were taught a gene was a stretch of DNA that coded for a protein. That does not apply anymore, thanks in part to the discovery of microRNA. These tiny genes are part of a new universe of biology that’s been unveiled, which was hiding in plain sight, so that’s really fascinating.

What challenges did you come up against in trying to convey this science to the lay reader in a way he or she can understand?

It’s always tricky to find an easy way to explain the relationship between DNA, RNA and proteins, and how information flows from one to the other. You don’t want your readers to feel overwhelmed with too many definitions, but at the same time I knew that if I didn’t explain these concepts clearly, the significance of the discovery of microRNA would be lost.

I thought it was interesting that understanding microRNA was an intellectual barrier, and not a technological one. Did you expect that?

I didn’t expect it, but it doesn’t surprise me, because other major discoveries in biology have happened once someone decides to think outside the box and look for alternative explanations to a puzzle.

What do you hope people take away from this story?

I hope this story inspires in people, as it did with me, a sense of awe at the complexity of life. I marvel at all the things that go on inside a cell in order for an organism to function, and this story made me realize there are probably hundreds of other processes, à la microRNA, going on inside our cells that we might not even know about yet. Our genome is still such a big mystery to us, and I wonder if and when man will be able to decipher its inner workings completely.


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