A Nobel Lesson: Listening to Telomerase

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.

Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 8:13 am  Comments (1)  
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What Mowing the Lawn Can Teach

Here’s a link to my guest blog article, published today in the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” blog.

I’d write more, but I have to go outside and quickly mow my lawn so that it looks halfway decent.

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Bonding in the Blogosphere

As I’ve watched my teenage and young-adult children the past few years, I’ve become painfully aware that they live in a different communication environment than I do. We all have access to the same tools—e-mail, voice mail, cell phone (both talking and texting), list serves, and social networking sites (LiveJournal, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace).  But we use these tools in fundamentally different ways.  My kids use Web 2.0, and I’m still getting used to Web 1.0.

Nevertheless, I’m trying to understand (and emulate) their style of communication, because it’s the Future.

So over the past few months, I’ve listened to dozens of podcasts, exchanged frequent text messages with my sons, joined LinkedIn, and started using RSS feeds to follow others’ blogs. I’m now getting all my news online, and I’ve canceled my print newspaper subscription (sorry, Star Tribune employees). I even signed up for Twitter.

But I don’t think I really “got it.” I didn’t really understand how and why these forms of communications were fundamentally different. Until February 5.  Now, I get it.

What happened last week that changed my experience of communicating?

To put it simply, I took my first real step into the world known as the Blogosphere. As part of my strategy to join the 21st century, I had recently started a blog, “The Alchemist in the Minivan.” But I hadn’t yet made any attempt to generate traffic to my site.

However, that changed on February 5, when a blog entry I submitted as a “guest blogger” was published by the New York Times on its “Motherlode” Parenting Blog. (See “Just Chill, Dad.”)

Suddenly, I felt exposed to the entire world.  After all, the New York Times website receives millions of visitors each month, from all over the world.   And some of those people might actually read my article!  As a writer, I was excited and proud.

But as a shy chemist and unassuming father living in Minnesota, where we value reticence and modesty, I was uncomfortable.  That feeling didn’t last long, however, because the Blogosphere took over.

I started seeing “comments” added to my NYT story—“comments” from parents around the country sharing their own experiences, humor, and wisdom. Fifty comments flooded in over the first two hours.

Their comments were warm, articulate, and insightful.  Some of these people followed the link to my blog site.  The number of daily hits on my website went up by a factor of 30–at least for that one day.    I was communicating and interacting, in a new way, with all these people.

And I enjoyed it! It wasn’t like talking to them face-to-face, by phone, by e-mail, or by teleconference. It was a qualitatively different type of bond—not particularly strong on an individual basis but powerful on a wide basis.

When faced with new situations, groping for a way to understand something, I often reach for a chemical metaphor. So I accessed the chemistry memory bank in my brain, searching for a chemical metaphor for this new type of bonding.

The first metaphor I visualized involved the delocalized electrons in aromatic rings, such as the electrons in a molecule of caffeine. I’ve written about that metaphor in an earlier published essay, “Coffee Chemistry,” so I kept searching for a new metaphor.

The second metaphor that came to mind involves the type of bonding that occurs in a metal. I’ll write more about this metallic bonding metaphor soon, but I first need to brush up and update my understanding (it’s been about 30 years since my college courses in inorganic chemistry ).

Where will I go to start my research?  I’ll use several of those new forms of knowledge and knowledge-sharing that have emerged in the 21st century. I’ll google “metallic bonding” and read the Wikipedia article.

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 7:47 am  Comments (1)  
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