Die nächste Grenze der Genetik

1974 veröffentlichte ich einen Aufsatz mit dem Titel "Die Genetik des Caenorhabditis elegans " auch bekannt unter dem Begriff Nematode. Der erste Satz lautete: "Auf welche Weise Gene die komplexen Strukturen höherer Organismen bestimmen, ist eines der großen, bisher ungelösten Probleme der Biologie." Dies gilt auch heute noch. Wie bauen Gene Organe, Knochen oder Haut auf und bestimmen deren Funktion? Liegt die Langsamkeit, mit der wir dem Geheimnis auf die Spur kommen, an unserer Schwierigkeit, einen Organismus zu finden, der sich als Studienobjekt eignete?

Bis in die frühen 60er Jahre war das große ungelöste Problem der Biologie weitaus bescheidenerer Natur: wie bestimmt die DNA das einfachste aller Proteine? Aber dann war schnell klar, dass man ein Gen nehmen und es sequenzieren, ein Protein nehmen und es sequenzieren musste, um dann einfach das eine in das andere umzusetzen. Im Prinzip konnten wir herausfinden, was Gene tun, in dem wir einfach ihre chemische Sprache entzifferten.

Natürlich hatten wir zu der Zeit nicht die richtigen Werkzeuge. Wir hatten primitive Instrumente zur Sequenzierung von Proteinen, und wir konnten nicht mit der Chemie von Genen umgehen. Wir konnten lediglich die - schmerzhaft langsame - Standardprozedur nach Gregor Mendel anwenden, dem Entdecker der Genetik aus dem 19. Jahrhundert. Nach Mendel ist die Präsenz eines Gens in einem Organismus erst dann bestätigt, wenn wir das Gegenteil davon gefunden haben, ein sogenanntes Allel . Mendel konnte zum Beispiel nicht mit Bestimmtheit sagen, dass eine Pflanzenart ein Gen für die Größe der Pflanze hatte, bis er Zwergmutanten derselben Spezies fand.

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