Earlier this month, while pundits bickered non-stop about Obama’s Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize with a profound lesson for humanity slipped by with little hullabaloo. I’m referring, of course, to the Nobel Prize for Medicine, awarded “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
Nature has much to teach us, if we’re willing to learn. When William Blake wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” he was offering solid advice.
So what can we learn from telomeres?
One of life’s basic challenges is to ensure that essential life lessons are passed effectively from generation to generation. Nature’s elegant solution, developed over several billion years, is telomeres. At the cellular level, “life lessons” are the genetic information contained in the chromosomes’ DNA. Cells that fail to pass along these lessons completely and accurately will not survive.
Telomeres are structures that protect the ends of chromosomes. During chromosomal replication, these structures safeguard the “lessons” from degradation. Cells even have a special enzyme—telomerase—that keeps the telomeres healthy and intact. Without telomeres, cells age rapidly and the organism dies.
And this is where the wisdom of the telomeres can help us. At the societal level, essential “life lessons” are passed down as values, laws and cultural wisdom. Communities, nations and civilizations that fail to pass along life lessons will not survive.
The moral of the story is that we must develop societal structures that protect the two ends of life—childhood and old age. If we fail to protect the lessons found in these two ends, we will see our society wither and die.
Although not a molecular biologist, Hubert Humphrey echoed the telomeres’ wisdom when he said, “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; [and] those who are in the twilight of life, the aged…”
Many of today’s most pressing policy questions deal with the beginning of life (issues such as child poverty, health insurance and pre-school education) or the ending of life (issues such as how to provide cost-effective and humane health care at the end of life). If we want to survive as a society, we must do a better job of providing structures—social telomeres—to protect these two ends.