Life is complex. Sorry.

Here’s part two of why there’s a lot of disappointment that the investment by taxpayers and investors in genetics research hasn’t resulted in a lot of  great treatments for diseases. What has been discovered is that even the most “simple” living things are more complex that thought a few years ago. Studies were published in last week’s Science that take the depth of detail about systems in a simple bacterium to a new level of detail. The bottom line: no living thing is simple.

Since you’ve gotta have a subscription to Science to read the articles (and I don’t) we’ll go on the abstracts and what was reported in Wired about them. Teams of researchers studied Mycoplasma pneumoniae, a bacterium that has only one-fifth the genes of the usual study subject, E. coli. In Brandon Keim’s Wired article he says:

The analysis combined information about gene regulation, protein production and cell structure… It’s far closer to a “blueprint” than a mere genome readout, and reveals processes “that are much more subtle and intricate than were previously considered possible in bacteria,” wrote University of Arizona biologists Howard Ochman and Rahul Raghavan in a commentary…In short, there was a lot going on in lowly, supposedly simple M. pneumoniae, and much of it is beyond the grasp of what’s now known about cell function…“Linear mapping of genes to function rarely considers how a cell actually accomplishes the processes,” wrote Ochman and Raghavan. “There is no such thing as a ’simple’ bacterium.”

The scientists suggest that the techniques can be applied to more commplex organisms with beneficial results. Some skeptics might be thinking, “Yeah, we’ve heard that before.”

It would be great if real life biology were simpler. We might have relief by now from things we dread like cancer. But the truth is that living things are incredibly complex and so are the chronic diseases that afflict us. Life science research and research into cancer, in particular, has been like peeling an onion or opening the so-called Russian dolls: inside each layer we’ve found another layer of complexity. It’s daunting, but there’s little we can do but roll up our sleeves and get back to figuring out the next puzzle.

People are going to have to take it upon themselves to do the preventive and health-sustaining things that are well known like healthy diet and exercise to keep their best health for a lifetime. Eventually the depth of biological mysteries will be puzzled out, but it’s going to continue to be a long trip, and it may never be possible to count on external treatments entirely to give us back good health if we’ve let it slide too long.

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