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The Stuff of Genes

Fifty years after the discovery of DNA's structure, the payoff hasn't matched the hype. But really, we've only just begun

Recall that not just the human genome has been sequenced, but bacteria and roundworm and fruit fly and mouse and soon chimpanzee and more, genomes over the entire range of living creatures. Now we can match these genomes up, in a new science, comparative genomics, which is just beginning to yield in full detail the fusion of genetics and evolution—of how and why. One quick example: molecular biologists in England and Germany recently discovered a DNA sequence or gene that appears essential to the human ability to use language. The sequence controls the action of a cascade of genes, affecting several functions. (Nobody said this was going to be simple.) Some members of a large family are afflicted with a single mutation in this DNA sequence that severely limits their ability to use words, to learn and employ normal syntax. Chimpanzees have that gene sequence, too—but it is slightly different from that in humans. In such discoveries lie what my friends the biologists ought to be advertising. Here are the transcendent answers we will thrill to. Darwin said it, in the poignant last paragraph of The Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life." Here is the triumph of the scientific worldview.

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