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You received a bachelor’s degree in music, then a doctorate in biochemistry. How did that happen? Very indirectly, which is kind of how I work. I had always been interested in music…but I got tired of practicing—five or six hours in a room by myself with a piano got to be a little much. In college, I dabbled with premed. I took a biochemistry class, and I found my new love. Since the beginning, I’ve worked in what we call “functional genomics,” characterizing the functions of the different parts of the cell.
What do you do at Wash. U.? I study gene regulation… We understand how the language of DNA is translated into the language of protein. When you move outside genes that code for protein, we really don’t know how to read the language.
What’s the most common misconception about your job? That we have genes for something—a gene that gives us trait X—and that our job is to figure out what the gene for this or that is. As it turns out, not only do many different genes contribute to the final product in different ways, but those genes are all strongly influenced by the environment… The environment can mimic genes, and genes can mimic the effects of the environment. It’s very difficult to tease apart.
What role does epigenetics play? We have hundreds of different types of cells—they have different shapes, do different things, last for different amounts of time—and they manage to do all of that with essentially the same DNA. Epigenetics is how you get an organism like humans, who have many different cell types, from just one genome.
A lot of people expected the Human Genome Project would provide answers. It’s a lot messier than we thought it would be. It turns out that instead of damage to one gene causing the same disease in different people, you can have damage to different genes that results in the same disease. The trick is not just to find the one gene that when mutated causes that disease—in some cases, it’s possibly hundreds of genes. So in a sense, there are many, many different versions of a disease. That idea is not new, but we’re now getting a handle on how much it actually happens with genomics, and it’s shocking.
You’ve described our DNA ecosystem as “more like a jungle than a precision machine.” In many ways, our cells are fairly reliable things built out of unreliable parts. Computer scientist John von Neumann came up with that concept for computers and cells in the ’50s.
You’re a fan of vintage science fiction from around that time. How accurate are those books in predicting the future? When these authors went way out there, they were way off. Looking back now, some of their ideas seem outrageous. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, wrote about reaching the moon in a hot air balloon. But when science-fiction writers come a little closer to home, they really have a knack for pulling out what’s important. In the late ’30s and early ’40s, science-fiction writers were talking about nuclear bombs, before The Manhattan Project ever started. These guys knew what was going on in some of these obscure corners of physics and had been able to figure out remarkably well what was going to happen in the next few years.
Where do you see your own work going? We’ve become a lot better at reading DNA, but our ability to write it, to create synthetic genomes or new chromosomes from scratch, or to edit DNA—being able to go in and modify somebody’s DNA—has been pretty crude in the past. Just in the last two years, there have been amazing breakthroughs in these technologies.
A Student of Science
When Michael White’s not studying DNA in a lab, he’s often writing about it. A sys-tems biologist at Washington University School of Medicine, White pens articles for research magazine Pacific Standard, on topics ranging from climate change to genetically modified mice to race. He also co-founded the science blog The Finch + Pea (thefinchandpea.com). Whatever the topic, White’s innate curiosity and enthusiasm for science shines through.