Sorry to break it to you, but DNA is not the magical thing that pop culture would like you to believe.
Because I am on GoodReads all the time, and because it’s full of a lot of self-published books (some of which are fine, some of which are WTF IS THIS??), I’ve been seeing a fair amount of really, really bad science lately. It was sort of funny at first, because seriously how do people come up with this shit, but now it’s just kind of obnoxious.
So let me explain some things to you, in case you see these kinds of books and do not immediately want to go on a murderous rampage like I do.
But first, here are some examples of what I’m talking about. Not to name names or anything, but I’m naming some anyway:
The Calypso Directive by Brian Andrews (in which some guy has a mutation that would confer universal immunity to a deadly virus if it could be commercialized: “Captivating, controversial, and courageous, Andrews debut is sure to thrill and leave you wondering what secrets are locked in your DNA.”)
Savage Bay by Christopher Forrest (in which an ancient secret is encoded in the human genome: “In his newest action thriller, bestselling author Christopher Forrest delves into the astounding secrets of an ancient civilization hidden inside human DNA.” Sounds like it would be pretty cramped in there, unless it’s a civilization of tiny molecules!)
The Genesis Code also by Christopher Forrest (in which our ancestors left us a message in our genome: “Ambergris has left behind a labyrinthine series of clues that ultimately reveals the truth: There is a message from a much earlier, more sophisticated human civilization encoded in the human genome!” someone should really talk to this guy)
The Immortality Virus by Christine Amsden (in which a virus causes us to become immortal. “In the mid-21st century, the human race stopped aging.” — I’ll come back to this one with a few points later)
At the End by John Hennessy (“In 2048, the human population borders 39 billion…”)
Degrees of Wrong by Anna Scarlett (“Dr. Elyse Morgan’s mission: find the cure to the HTN4 virus.”)
Ok, by this point you get the idea. I can easily group these types of books into two groups:
1. Those where your DNA is inherently magical in some way; and/or
2. Those where it appears that the author has a fundamental lack of knowledge in terms of nature and did not attempt to rectify the issue.
I guess the first issue can be categorized under the second, but let’s deal with that later. For a lot of people, DNA is definitely a mystery box. I can forgive people misunderstanding DNA to some degree, but in both situations, even a simple Google search would really help these books go from “what the fuck?” to “okay, I guess I can suspend my disbelief for that…”
So let’s start with category 1. These authors seem to be under the impression that DNA is just a thing you carry around. It lives in your cells and encodes things like secrets and your species history and maybe some memories or even proteins, as long as they are special proteins that nobody else has.
This is stupid and annoying in so many ways.
DNA encodes these things:
RNAs (not just mRNAs, which usually become proteins, but also tRNAs, rRNAs, and miRNAs)
Regulatory mechanisms (like promoters, terminators, ribosome binding sites, and transcription factor binding sites)
DNA does not encode any of these things:
The history of your species
Secrets of the Universe
Let’s start at the beginning.
DNA contains four bases: A, T, G, and C.
If the DNA happens to encode a protein, of which roughly 2% of the human genome does, it can be translated into twenty amino acids: A, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, Y (there are actually two others, but they are for bacteria and archaea only — sorry, you’re not part of the 21-amino acid club (yet?))
This leaves a fairly limited amount of letters with which you can spell a message. You can say short things like “THECAKEISALIE” and “HEADCRABSAAAGH” but probably not enough to encode THE SECRETS OF AN ANCIENT CIVILIZATION. You can’t even spell “civilization,” or “of,” so come on.
The next problem we run into is mutation rates.
The estimated mutation rate for humans is 0.000000011-ish per base per generation. This might not seem like a lot, but the human genome is about 3 billion bases long. This leads to an average of 33 new mutations every generation. If you think about how many generations and how many variations have arisen during those generations, any message from ancient times is going to get scrambled to hell. The longer the message, the more scrambled it will become. The “message” may even become completely backwards from what you think it should say. If it started off as “HEADCRABSAAAGH,” after thousands of generations, maybe it will instead say “HEADCRABSYAAAY.” Are you sure you really want to trust your DNA on these matters?
Then there’s the next category: the author seems to have a fundamental lack of understanding of nature. Take “The Immortality Virus,” in which people stop aging. Now, let’s stop right there. Everything is going to age, even you, even me, so fucking deal with it. We can prolong our lives, but we cannot become immortal. Even if our bodies are fortified and coddled as we age, our minds will go. Even if science can improve our minds, our cells will go. The ways our cells are built, the ways they operate, are done so under the premise that they will eventually die. Old cells become prone to errors. The more they divide, the more the errors accumulate. Eventually, something significant will stop working and the cell will die. It won’t just wither away either, it will actively kill itself (via a pathway known as apoptosis). This is good. The cell is programmed this way. It needs to happen. Immortalized cells become cancer. Immortalized bodies aren’t going to be any better.
This brings me to the next problem: population. Now, “The Immortality Virus” actually takes the issue of population into account in the story. With nobody dying, the world will become ridiculously crowded, and the book acknowledges this and tries to deal with it. I really appreciate that. It indicates some knowledge of population dynamics, even if there’s less knowledge about why immortality is a stupid idea. So. Populations expand or dwindle based on birth rates and death rates. If death rate is zero but birth rate is still positive, overpopulation will swiftly become a problem. We currently have 7 billion people on this planet, with estimates of 9-10 billion people by 2050. We are already quickly depleting our resources and dealing with issues of overcrowding. “The Immortality Virus” sees any further increase as an obvious problem, as it should. But take a look at “At the End,” with claims of 39 billion people by 2048. This is not sustainable. Actually, no. Not only is it not sustainable, it just can’t happen. Our current growth rate is k = 0.007 (last time I checked). This gives us the current estimate of 9.2 billion people by 2050. This is assuming that the human population is still in its exponential phase of growth, which seems reasonable: our growth might be slowing down, but we certainly haven’t leveled off yet. Regardless, to get a population of 39 billion, our growth rate would have to be k = 0.045! In more meaningful terms, our death rate is currently 0.05% and the birth rate is 0.12% For every 100 people (regardless of age or sex), there will be one new birth. If we assume that k = 0.045 instead of 0.007, keeping the death rate the same, this would mean a new birth for every 20 people. Multiply that by the whole world, and what you get is FUCKING RIDICULOUS.
So. Learn some population dynamics, or at least some ecology. Please. I mean, just look it up on Wikipedia or something if you’re going to write a book about it, because 39 billion people by 2048 is totally unrealistic unless some major, major changes are done to improve healthcare, distribution and quality of food/water, politics, whatever, while for some reason people decide to have way more babies. It just doesn’t make any sense. I can’t think of any way it could make any sense either. I almost want to read the first few chapters just so I know what the heck the logic (“logic”?) is behind this situation, but I don’t think it will be very satisfactory.
Okay, final point, which is picky but personal: influenza. “Degrees of Wrong” — oh man, so appropriately named, you have no idea. The book description states that Dr. Morgan is trying to find a cure for the HTN4 virus. Let me pick this apart. First of all, and most glaringly, there is the issue of nomenclature. Words mean things. Influenza strains are named based on which type of hemagglutinin* (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) are expressed in the virion’s envelope. Let’s take some examples:
H1N1 = HA 1 + NA 1
H5N1 = HA 5 + NA 1
H7N2 = HA 7 + NA 2
You get the idea. Note: there is no “T” anywhere. Why not? Because that would be stupid. There’s already a well-characterized number system. If another HA type is discovered, it will be H18, not HT, because who the hell would come up with that? And even if someone did, they would quickly be beaten by their colleagues with sticks. The next problem is that viruses containing N4 do not infect humans. N1 and N2 are the biggest problems because viruses with these can infect and often spread from human to human. N4, not so much. This probably isn’t for lack of trying on N4′s part, but because humans do not have the right type of sialic acid bonds in their lungs for neuraminidase to cleave and release virions from the cell. Fundamental problem.
Ok, aside from nomenclature, there’s the business of a cure. Influenza is very, very difficult to “cure.” Actually, I would say it’s impossible. You can vaccinate against current strains, but you have to keep vaccinating every year to keep up with the virus. Influenza evolves very quickly. It also has two “levels” of evolution, known as antigenic shift and antigenic drift. Antigenic shift occurs when the genome in a virion becomes reassorted. Influenza’s genome is segmented. If more than one virion infects a cell, these segments can be exchanged to produce totally new combinations of influenza. For example, a pig infected with H5N3 + H2N1 can lead to the production of H5N1 and H2N3. The other type of evolution, antigenic drift, is more subtle. These are small changes in the HA and/or NA genes that lead to slight variances in immune response. This is the main reason why we need new flu vaccines every year. Each strain is slightly different from last year because of these small changes. Because antigenic drift is a continuous process, there will always be new variants. You can’t cure something that is actively evolving, especially if it is doing so in a reservoir other than humans (namely birds and pigs). You can control it, especially if you include agricultural practices in the method of control, but curing it will take a lot of work, co-operation, and probably an act of God.
Ok, so there ends my criticism of a lot of the bad science in books. In conclusion: if you want to write a book that has some sort of science in it, please do your research. Google is your friend. If you’re feeling hardcore, check out PubMed. If you want people to take your story seriously, you have to take it seriously yourself first.
I should also note that there are plenty of books where people have done their research, and I will post about these a little later! :D
* Can also be spelled haemagglutinin if you’re feeling particularly British.