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Nature's Elegance

May 15, 1988

The announcement by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that they have deciphered a second genetic code is a stunning advance in our understanding of the way biology works. It holds out the promise of important applications in genetic engineering. But it does more than that. It shows again that nature is understandable and that the human mind can unravel its secrets.

The revolution in biology began in 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the basic structure and function of DNA. Since then scientists have learned an enormous amount about the chemistry of the genetic code. By the 1960s they had pieced together complete knowledge of the master language by which cells synthesize proteins, the building blocks of life, and how they pass this information from one generation to the next. Within a few years after that they had figured out how to intervene in the process and make changes. Thus genetic engineering was born.

But exactly how the protein synthesis proceeded remained unclear. The overall picture was well known, but a key step in the assembly of aminoacids into proteins was not. The master plan is contained in a cell's DNA. It passes the information on to a substance called messenger RNA, which then gives it to another substance, transfer RNA, which actually puts the protein together.

How it does this was unknown until last week, when Paul Schimmel and Ya-Ming Hou of MIT published a paper in the British science journal Nature in which they deciphered the second genetic code. The existence of this second code had been known for 20 years, but it remained for Schimmel and Hou to figure out how it works.

Most surprising is that the code turns out to be simpler than anyone had expected. It had stumped scientists for so long that they assumed that it must be very complicated. Not so. Schimmel says that the code exhibits "an elegantly simple logic."

The key word is elegantly. As Albert Einstein said in a different context, "Subtle is the Lord,but malicious he is not. Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse." He was speaking of physics, but his in sight applies to all of science.

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