Iowa Writes

REX DUKE
Gossamer Goats (Part 2)


DNA to RNA to protein.  In a broad sense, this is the formula that creates all life, the process that accounts for all variation.  At its core, life is a collection of enormously complex proteins, the blueprint of which is DNA.  DNA, that infamous double-helix, lives within the nucleus of a cell.  But because DNA contains the instructions for all of life, a not inconsequential burden to bear, it doesn't stray from the nucleus and risk mutation.  Instead, it essentially makes a copy of itself, one bold enough to leave home, in a process called transcription.  The duplicate, called RNA, leaves the nucleus and travels to the ribosomes, which read the RNA and ultimately produce a protein.  'Blueprint' is such an apt metaphor for DNA because these proteins are highly complex physical structures, grotesquely twisted and contorted upon themselves like rubble after an earthquake.  In fact, the structural variance between proteins produces all of the biologic variety we see, and each piece of DNA, called a gene, is responsible for one type of protein.  To grant goats the gift of silk, researchers only had to insert one additional gene into the goats' DNA.

Just as DNA is agoraphobic, the cell itself is a nervous host.  In order to protect themselves, many cells have a cell wall that prevents the unit from absorbing wandering -- and potentially harmful -- detritus.  At certain times, however, the cell opens its home to surrounding DNA, a state called competence.  While competence occurs naturally, scientists can also induce it artificially.  Since DNA is nothing more than a string of commands, transferring it from one host to another is nothing more than molecular cut-and-paste.  After he identified the golden orb gene responsible for silk-production, Lewis and his team snipped that section from the donor's DNA, planted it in the vicinity of the goat embryo, and catalyzed competence.  The resulting goats are transgenic, literally meaning 'across' genes, though they don't glow in the dark, sport an extra head, or manifest any other outward signs of their internal engineering, apart from their silky milk.  And when he needed more goats, Lewis employed a more conventional approach, breeding transgenic does with natural bucks and transgenic bucks with natural does.

DNA to RNA to protein.  In a broad sense, this is the formula that creates all life, the process that accounts for all variation.  At its core, life is a collection of enormously complex proteins, the blueprint of which is DNA.  DNA, that infamous double-helix, lives within the nucleus of a cell.  But because DNA contains the instructions for all of life, a not inconsequential burden to bear, it doesn't stray from the nucleus and risk mutation.  Instead, it essentially makes a copy of itself, one bold enough to leave home, in a process called transcription.  The duplicate, called RNA, leaves the nucleus and travels to the ribosomes, which read the RNA and ultimately produce a protein.  'Blueprint' is such an apt metaphor for DNA because these proteins are highly complex physical structures, grotesquely twisted and contorted upon themselves like rubble after an earthquake.  In fact, the structural variance between proteins produces all of the biologic variety we see, and each piece of DNA, called a gene, is responsible for one type of protein.  To grant goats the gift of silk, researchers only had to insert one additional gene into the goats' DNA.

Just as DNA is agoraphobic, the cell itself is a nervous host.  In order to protect themselves, many cells have a cell wall that prevents the unit from absorbing wandering -- and potentially harmful -- detritus.  At certain times, however, the cell opens its home to surrounding DNA, a state called competence.  While competence occurs naturally, scientists can also induce it artificially.  Since DNA is nothing more than a string of commands, transferring it from one host to another is nothing more than molecular cut-and-paste.  After he identified the golden orb gene responsible for silk-production, Lewis and his team snipped that section from the donor's DNA, planted it in the vicinity of the goat embryo, and catalyzed competence.  The resulting goats are transgenic, literally meaning 'across' genes, though they don't glow in the dark, sport an extra head, or manifest any other outward signs of their internal engineering, apart from their silky milk.  And when he needed more goats, Lewis employed a more conventional approach, breeding transgenic does with natural bucks and transgenic bucks with natural does.

Because DNA is so fundamental to life, and because transplanting genes between species produces heretofore unimaginable results, nothing in science invites accusations of cataclysmic hubris like genetic engineering.  Genetic change is, however, perhaps the most naturally occurring process on Earth.  Cells use DNA to produce proteins at an unfathomable rate.  The cells in human bone marrow, for example, produce 100 trillion molecules of hemoglobin per second.  With such a dizzying amount of DNA reading and sequencing, mistakes are bound to happen.  Parts of the DNA's string of instructions may be augmented, substituted, deleted, or shifted.  Although these seemingly disastrous mishaps may ultimately damn individuals, the process as a whole is the sole driver of genetic variation, and, by extension, evolution.  Never before have the variations been produced by -- and for the benefit of -- our species, but neither did a mule exist before humans thought to breed a horse and a donkey.  Genetic mutation is, of course, a possibility for Lewis' goats, but since the spider gene is only one among the goat's 70,000 genes, the odds that the goats' offspring will spontaneously lose their gossamer edge are statistically insignificant.

Lewis and his goats are part of a motley and eclectic crew of transgenic organisms, ranging from poplar trees that absorb groundwater toxins to venomous cabbage that requires fewer pesticides.  Genetic engineering is quickly seeping into other disciplines as well, creating the potential for revolutionary breakthroughs in fuel production, pharmaceuticals, and material infrastructure.  For his part, Lewis has his eye on the medical field as another potential consumer.  "We've done some studies that show," Lewis says, "that you can put it in the body, and you don't get inflammation and get ill."  Eventually, Lewis projects, the silk may be used to replace torn ligaments.  And were he ever so inclined, Lewis could trade in his pipettes for a weaving loom.  Four years and $500,000 to make an 11-foot golden tapestry?  There are much, much easier ways to do it.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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REX DUKE

Rex Duke just finished his second year in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program.




Gossamer Goats appeared on the Daily Palette in two parts.  If you missed it, you can find Part 1 here.

This page was first displayed
on June 14, 2016

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