Friday, June 13, 2008

The Miracle of the Human Genome

The Miracle of the Human Genome
by Ronald P. Millett
Edited by John P. Pratt

The human genome contains the programmed codes of
life which may be surprisingly similar to modern
computer programs. Now that the recording of the
entire code is nearly complete, software
engineers turned biologists may begin to
understand those complicated programs.

Model of a tiny part of a DNA Molecule

The recent history making research to sequence
the code of the entire human DNA(1) "genome"
shows us as never before the complexity and
hierarchy of systems necessary for the miracle of
life. As scientists unravel this DNA "book of
life," researchers are finding that living
systems have many parallels with information
processing systems. Just as Alma testified that
"all things denote there is a God" (Alma 30:44),
these discoveries testify of the hand of God in
the creation of man and life on earth.

As Moroni began to write on the golden plates
after the death of his father, Mormon, he
delivered an impassioned plea for us to believe
in the miracles of the Lord:

Behold, are not the things that God hath
wrought marvelous in our eyes? Yea, and who can
comprehend the marvelous works of God? Who shall
say that it was not a miracle that by his word
the heaven and the earth should be; and by the
power of his word man was created of the dust of
the earth; (Mormon 9:16-17)

King Benjamin affirmed the miracle of the Lord's
creation and our obligation to be humble about
our current understanding of his work.

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that
he created all things, both in heaven and in
earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all
power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that
man doth not comprehend all the things which the
Lord can comprehend. (Mosiah 4:9)

Our modern prophet Gordon B. Hinckley also added
his testimony of the creation of man's miraculous
body. "I believe the human body to be the
creation of divinity. Our bodies were designed
and created by the Almighty to be the
tabernacles, the earthly receptacles, of our
eternal spirits."(2)

Although there are disagreements among religious
scientists about the mechanisms and specific
natural laws that the Lord may have used in his
creative processes, they recognize his hand in
the miraculous diversity and complexity of life
on earth and in the marvelous inventions that
have been revealed to help us understand his
Sequencing the Human Genome
One of the most ambitious scientific projects
during this last decade has been the application
of new technologies to determine the sequences of
human DNA. The entire set of all DNA sequences is
called the "genome." As the first pass through
this project now is near completion, it is being
described as a "day for the ages" similar to
Galileo's discoveries, Lewis and Clark's
exploration of the western United States and
putting a man on the moon. One scientist said
that for the first time we can now read "our own
instruction book. Today, we celebrate the
revelation of the first draft of the human book
of life."Another scientist ventured that "the
human genome project will be seen as the
outstanding achievement, not only of our
lifetime, but perhaps in the history of

Adding a note of caution to the announcement,
James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA in 1953,
indicated decades of work are ahead of us before
we actually understand how the products of all
the genes in the genome interact with one
another. "People say we can read it. We can't
read it. We have the book, and now we've got to
learn how to read it."(5) Geneticist Norton
Zinder compared what we have yet to learn about
the human genome to the history of the medical
profession when the first book on human anatomy
was published in 1543: "Even though that book
identified almost all the parts of the human
body, physicians today still struggle to
understand how many of them work and interact. A
similarly daunting task °© one that scientists
say may also take several centuries to complete
°© now awaits those who seek to make sense of the
myriad genes of the human genome."(6)

The genome "book" is a 3-billion-long
sequence of only four different "letters"
arranged in the DNA double helix.

Understanding the DNA "Book of Life"
This "book of life" is written as a sequence of
only four different "genetic letters": the
nucleotides thymine (T), cytosine (C), adenine
(A) and guanine (G). The sequence is over three
billion letters long, and it is the transcribing
of that sequence which is now being completed.
The series of these four nucleotides is coiled
along the extremely long DNA spiral. This code is
contained in each of the trillions of cells of
the human body. If unraveled from a single cell,
it would be over six feet long, but only 50
trillionths of an inch wide. For the areas of the
DNA that define proteins, groups of only three of
the genetic letters form a "genetic word" that
specifies one of the 20 amino acids. The three
billion genetic letters of the human genome
contain about the same amount of information that
can be stored on a typical CD-ROM.

The fact that every cell contains the entire
human genome is amazing. It is as if every nut
and bolt of a Boeing 747 contained the blueprint
for constructing every part of the entire
airplane, as well as assembly instructions.

It is estimated that only about 3% of the genetic
code contains the protein defining sequences of
the estimated 30,000 to 120,000 genes for human
beings. The full genes themselves including these
protein definitions and other less understood
functions are estimated to be less than 10% of
the total DNA. Much of the remaining 90% of the
DNA code is known as "noncoding DNA" and most of
its function is still poorly understood. Large
portions of this noncoding DNA consists of
sequences that appear to have no function at all
and are referred to as "junk DNA."(7)

The differences between individual human beings
is limited to one genetic letter in every
thousand or only about three million genetic
letters.(8) These differences could be easily
stored on a floppy disk. This is an incredibly
small amount of information to describe the
combined differences among all the people of the
world. This small amount of DNA difference among
people has to be able to specify attributes as
varied as individual eye color, facial
characteristics, and differences in brain neuron
connections. A single wrong or missing DNA letter
or word in a gene's DNA formula can often be the
culprit behind such genetic diseases as sickle
cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.(9) The different
versions of genes are called alleles. The gene
that controls ear lobe shape has two alleles, one
for attached ear lobes and one for free ear
lobes. Since the total number of genes with
variations is estimated to be one third of all
genes, the average difference between alleles
would be only about 20 to 60 bytes of
information.(10) The information content of these
DNA differences between humans is very high from
a computer science perspective.
Levels of Systems to Process Information
DNA apparently contains high level genetic
information letters and words that have
tremendous influence on both the cellular and
organism levels of life. That is, whether one's
ear lobes are attached or free could be
determined by a single letter of the entire
genome, but that letter would in turn control
extremely complicated processes that contain
instructions on exactly how to produce that type
of ear lobe. If so, then computer information
theory may provide a useful framework to analyze
how these levels of processing might work.

In computer science, a highly compressed data
representation requires more complex programming
layers to process than does uncompressed data.
For example, an image of a 11 x 14 inch color
painting took 53 million bytes in its
uncompressed ("TIFF") file format. The same full
page version took only about 1/100th as many
bytes using a compressed ("JPEG") file format.
The programming necessary to process the
uncompressed representation is fairly simple,
consisting of a few lines of programming code.
However, the programming sequences to process the
compressed version is much more complex,
involving hundreds of lines of instructions and
multiple nested programs.(11)

If we were to display this compressed photograph
on a PC, other layers of programming would also
be required. These would include the PC operating
system such as Microsoft Windows® which consists
of programs necessary to schedule and run
programs and interface with other devices such as
the video display.

These programming layers contain bits of
information especially coded to reference the
instructions of the computer hardware that it is
designed to run on. Without the hardware, the
software designs and programs cannot function and
are only an intellectual exercise. In this
example, the software is programmed to use
instructions of the Intel Pentium® chip.

At the most basic level, the computer hardware
works because of electrical power and the
consistent operation of the laws of physics.
Without electricity, the computer chips are just
fancy sand etchings and the software programs are
simply magnetic or optical patterns on a plastic
or metal disk.

Figure 1. Levels of programming
required to display a photo.

Figure 1 illustrates this sample hierarchy of
systems required to display on a PC a "JPEG"
graphics file located on a remote server on the

Bioinformatics °© A New Field in Biology
With the new discoveries of how DNA contains
coded information and being able to determine its
actual genetic letter sequences, biology is
becoming a field where information science plays
an increasingly important role. A new kind of
biologist is becoming part of the research teams
that work to understand the meaning of the DNA
code. This new field of "bioinformatics ... also
called biological computing, straddles the lines
dividing biology, computer science and
mathematics."(12) Many of the key processes
necessary to understand the DNA code are similar
to the "reverse engineering" process that
software developers go through to understand the
functions of a program where no source code is

As the sequences of the entire DNA molecule are
being further studied, we are beginning to
understand the large portions of the human genome
that do not contain protein encoding sequences.
Sequences called "Introns" are found between the
"exon" protein encoding sequences of genes.
Although we still know very little about what
they might do, some scientists believe that
introns may contain error detection and
correction codes.(14) DNA mutations come from
many sources: biological, chemical or radiation.
The cell's DNA repair systems are able to correct
most of these DNA changes. That would imply some
very sophisticated error correction schemes. An
example of a programming system that required
complex error detection and corrections codes is
the NASA Galileo deep space probe that is still
orbiting the planet Jupiter. Extensive data
compression and sophisticated error correction
schemes have salvaged the Galileo mission even
when the main antenna failed and the only the
small backup antenna with one ten thousandth its
capacity was left.(15)

Finding and understanding DNA sequences that
control the actual regulation and activation of
genes is barely in its infancy. However, in
recent research comparing mouse DNA sequences to
those of human DNA, "a research team from several
universities found a regulatory region that
governs three genes for proteins that influence
the immune response."(16) This and other
discoveries point to the existence of programming
and control sequences that also reside in the DNA

Parallel Information Systems
We are finding more and more evidence that DNA
contains both genes that define actual proteins
and sequences that control the relationships and
activation of those genes. This relationship is
similar to that of data ("objects") and their
associated logic ("methods") in computer
programming. We might also expect that parallels
may be found to exist in biological systems to
other layers in our layers of systems necessary
to make a computer program work.

If a computer program needs an operating system
to run, what might a DNA program need to be able
to run? There are many chemical processes in a
cell that are essential to "execute" the DNA
programs. These include the various kinds of RNA
molecules that copy and move DNA gene codes
around the cell to be used in constructing
proteins.(18) A recent article studying ribosomes
where proteins are manufactured adds evidence of
the complexity of "tunnel structures" where
proteins are assembled.(19) These discoveries are
reminiscent of the complex
"pipeline"architectures of computer chips and
data caching software.

Spiritual DNA?
When the Lord returns to earth for his Millennial
reign, the scriptures tell us that he will reveal
many truths about the creation. They will be
especially exciting to those scientists who have
been struggling to understand how he created and
organized life on earth.

Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when
the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things
°© Things which have passed, and hidden things
which no man knew, things of the earth, by which
it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof
°© (D. & C. 101:32-33)

One of the most exciting things that we hope to
learn about would be the relationship of physical
DNA to the "spiritual DNA"(13) or other forms of
spirit matter that exists as part of the earlier
spiritual creation of life on earth. The Lord has
said that "I, the Lord God, created all things,
of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they
were naturally upon the face of the earth."
(Moses 3:5). President Joseph F. Smith taught
that "Man is a dual being, composed of the spirit
which gives life, force, intelligence and
capacity to man, and the body which is the
tenement of the spirit ... and acts in harmony
with it .... The two combined constitute the

In its December 1999 issue, Scientific American
magazine contained an article entitled "How the
Brain Creates the Mind" that predicted that in
the coming fifty years we would unravel the
mystery of how the conscious mind is derived only
from the physical cells of the brain without any
reference to the spirit portion of the human
soul. Considering the mechanisms of how the
spirit affects both the development of the brain
as well as its function, one reviewer suggested
that a future article might be better titled "How
the Mind Creates the Brain."(21)

In a hierarchy of computer systems, the software
layers require hardware layers to function.
Similarly, we understand that the physical body
would be lifeless without the spirit. The various
systems that comprise the body would not function
without the corresponding underlying spiritual

Spiritual "Electric" Force
In Section 88 the Lord describes a life force
called the "Light of Christ" which "proceedeth
forth from the presence of God to fill the
immensity of space °© The light which is in all
things, which giveth life to all things ...." (D.
& C. 88:12-13). President Joseph F. Smith
explained that "it is the light of Christ, the
Spirit of Truth, which proceeds from the source
of intelligence, which permeates all nature,
which lighteth every man and fills the immensity
of space. You may call it the Spirit of God, you
may call it the influence of God's intelligence,
you may call it the substance of his power, no
matter what it is called, it is the spirit of
intelligence that permeates the universe and
gives to the spirits of men understanding."(22)

Surely this light of Christ is another essential
systems layer that enables the life processes
specified in the miraculous human DNA molecule.
Without its sustaining power, all life would
wither away and die.(23)

Figure 2. Life system parallels
to programming system.

Figure 2 illustrates a proposed life system
architecture that has parallels with the
programming system layers discussed earlier. Some
of these layers will be able to be further
investigated by scientific inquiry. The spiritual
layers will doubtless be topics of study when the
Lord comes again to reveal all things.

God's Majesty and Power
This is an exciting age to live in. As the Lord
continues to pour out knowledge from heaven upon
latter-day saints and the modern world we react
with awe and wonder as we see his creations
revealed. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of
the human genome project said: "When something
new is revealed about the human genome, I
experience a feeling of awe at the realization
that humanity now knows something only God knew

Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk who was the
founder of modern genetics, exemplified an
objective scientist with a powerful faith in God.
As well as his superb scientific writings, Mendel
is the author of religious writings such as this

Wherefore was man created? . . .
Assuredly the Most High, who so wisely
Shaped the round world . . .
Created man also
For some definite reason. Assuredly
The capacities of the mind
Prove that for it a lofty aim
Is reserved(25)

As we continue to learn more about DNA and are
able to extract and recombine DNA sequences into
living cells, surely we will better understand
that we are the spiritual children of God. We are
learning about his works of creation and being
allowed to actually do a portion of that creative
work. When Jesus was condemned for claiming to be
the Son of God, "Jesus answered them, Is it not
written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? ... If
I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.
But if I do ... believe the works" (John 10:34,
37-38, Psalms 82:6)

Our view of his creations varies all the way from
the large and far away quasars of astronomy using
telescopes to the intricate programming of the
DNA molecule using microscopic techniques. The
Lord's explanation in Section 88 that all these
creations show his "majesty and power" surely
applies to this tiny world of molecules as well
as the giant worlds of planets and stars.

Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man
who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen
God moving in his majesty and power. (D&C 88:43,

Whether discovered by science or revealed by the
Lord, the truth will not contradict itself. True
science and true revelation will be a combined
testimony of the marvelous work that the Lord has
wrought and is bringing to pass here on earth. It
will be a testimony also of his most important
work and "glory °© to bring to pass the
immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39).

About the Author
Ron Millett and his wife Rhonda live in Orem,
Utah with their six energetic children. Ron is a
software developer with a master's degree from
BYU in computer science and the inventor of five
software patents. He enjoys scouting, amateur
astronomy with an observatory on his roof, and
studying snakes. Rhonda enjoys being at home and
is the webmaster of the family
history site.