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January 07, 2012

Medicine as an Information Science

DNAI remember vividly reading about DNA and its mechanisms in James Watson's Double Helix. The unzipping of the two reversed strands interlocked by the strict pairing of nucleotides--adenine to thymine and guanine to cytosine. The complex and choreographed interactions with other molecules leading to the construction of proteins. The systematic beauty at the nucleus of life. It was all engaging enough for me to decide to study Biochemistry at university.

When I finished my degree I worked in international marketing and travelled the world. I was always proud (and grateful!) that English is the most widely spoken language with about 80 percent of the world being able to speak it. But it is not the real lingua franca any more. The most popular language comprises 0s and 1s--the binary language of computers. GB Shaw said America and England were 'separated by the same language,' but the binary language unites the world.

What's more, the two binary languages of DNA nucleotide pairing and computer coding are set dominate the coming decades in a combination of genomics and computer science. David Baltimore said that Biology is today an information science. Indeed, Bioinformatics combines life and computer science so that they are as interlocked as the strands of DNA.

We will see if genomics lives up to its promise, of course. As another scientist, Neils Bohr, said: 'Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.' Even the exquisite DNA translation process sometimes gets it wrong and proteins end up with the wrong amino acids, impairing their function. Indeed the majority of DNA itself is regarded as 'junk', because it seems to have no function. All of this all sounds a bit like computer code and its creation, another systematic human process.

I have been fascinated by interface between man and machine for more than 30 years. Now it seems more alluring than ever.