Our Majestic DNA: The Vast Universe Within Each of Your 37.2 Trillion Cells What is DNA and How Does It Work?
“An exact determination of the laws of heredity will probably work more change in man’s outlook on the world, and in his power over nature, than any other advance in natural knowledge that can be foreseen.”
– William Bateson – Founder of the science of genetics
Double Helix Science and Spirituality
My Dear Reader… many of you have been asking, “Dr. Bruce, what is DNA, and how does it work?” Today I will answer that question, and raise some new ones that relate to DNA and spirituality.
Did you know that we humans are approximately 2.5 million light years (15,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles) away from the nearest galaxy outside the Milky Way? Did you know the earth is 4.5 billion years old? Can you imagine that each of your 37.2 trillion cells contains 5 million to 2 trillion molecules? Or, what if I told you that your body contains 39 trillion bacterial cells? Let me get to the point, in case you haven’t guessed it already: From the vastness of the sky to the multitude of microscopic organisms crawling on the inside and outside of our bodies, some of the mysteries of the universe are simply beyond our comprehension. Many of you may also consider the inner workings of our very own bodies to be within that realm—even in this information age, the things that make us sleepy, or make us fall in love, or make us depressed, anxious, or joyous, seem more within the realm of magic than science. Perhaps you’ve even considered this as you’ve read through my recent series on how the human genome shapes our mental health: Sure, I can read that if I have a risk allele on my MTHFR gene I may be at a greater risk of having depression—but I’ll never be able to really understand why. But in today’s blog, my goal is simple: I want to show you that understanding your own DNA is not just possible, but can change the way you think about your mental health.
The Mystery of our Genetic Code… Unlocked
There’s a reason some might attribute the inner workings of our DNA to a more magical realm just outside our human understanding. And don’t get me wrong—your human genome, that mystical element we all possess and that I’ve been discussing in my two blog series on DNA (found here and here)—is truly awesome. But whereas, for non-scientists, there’s a limit to the practicality of trying to know more about the seemingly magical, like distances to other planets or the age of the earth, understanding how our DNA works can give each and every one of us the power to effect lifelong, meaningful changes to our own bodies and minds—and that’s why I want to share this knowledge with you today.
Now, I admit that DNA can seem like an infinitely complex and impossible notion to wrap our minds around. For instance, we may be able to understand that our DNA is made up of four nucleotides arranged in pairs (we’ve seen the double helix images—the pairs constitute the rungs in the DNA ladder!) but how are we to fully comprehend that inside each one of our microscopic cells, there exists 3 billion pairs of nucleotides? How are we to comprehend that although humanity can look and act so differently (consider as just one example how different you are from your siblings, your mother, or your father), that across the globe each of us shares 99.6% of our genetic code—and that our individuality comes from just 0.4% of that code?
Luckily, in our practical understanding of DNA, we don’t have to comprehend all 3 billion pairs. What we are concerned with is much more tangible. You see, DNA is the code that our body “reads” to create and re-create itself. And if 99.6% of our bodies and minds are identical to all other humans, it makes sense that a great proportion of our DNA codes for myriad regulatory functions inside each cell. Science has proven this out: Just 1.5% of all human DNA, in fact, codes for the manufacture of proteins that determine the actual structure and function of each and every one of the trillions of cells in our bodies. And this particular 1.5% of our body’s 3 billion paired nucleotides—our DNA—has a special name: they are our protein-coding genes… 20,000 of them, to be exact. The remaining 98.5% of our DNA has other regulatory, and other largely unknown functions. Some regulates protein-coding genes, and some regulates the regulators. What magical mystery!
Can You Change your Genetic Destiny?
The numbers above hopefully feel somewhat comprehensible. But to truly comprehend this process, I encourage you to watch the video below, which does an excellent job of visualizing the inner workings of our cells. As you’ll see, genes are sections of DNA that contain instructions for building proteins. Those proteins—made up of amino acids—will eventually determine everything from the color of your eyes to whether you might suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental illness. As you watch and listen to this video, you might think that such a beautiful, mechanical process might point to a genetic predeterminism—that our fates are sealed in each of those genes (our cellular “code”) that get read and do their work.
But about 20 seconds into the video, the narrator speaks a line that makes a different case. Did you catch it? “When the gene is switched on…”. Now, re-watch the video and consider those mechanical processes in a different light: like any good computer, the process of reading our genes in order to create the proteins that build and rebuild our very selves is one of inputs and outputs. And guess what, reader? You have a big say over those inputs. While you may be genetically predisposed to certain mental health conditions, there are innumerable inputs that can tell your body to switch “on” or “off” certain genes. These inputs include everything from vitamins and supplements to targeted medications to a simple run in the morning.
Now, watch the video one more time and consider: your pattern of getting stressed out, your craving for just one more glass of wine, even your puzzlement over your own serious PTSD symptoms as opposed to friends who lack these traits—all of these personality characteristics are rooted in those proteins floating in your cell’s cytoplasm. And armed with the knowledge of your personal genome to select the inputs that drive healthier genetic outputs, you may just be able to alter those traits over time. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
So, reader, next time you look up at the stars, I hope the incomprehensible immensity of our universe takes your breath away. And the next time you look at yourself in the mirror, I hope you realize that when it comes to the immensity of your “inner universe,” you have the tools to understand your own infinite complexity a little bit better—gene by gene.
Finally, I promised you some “spiritual” questions. What is the origin of consciousness, and how does that relate to free will? Do birds grieve just like humans? Do the answers lie in our DNA, and religious naturalism? Stay tuned.
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