James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 23, 2009

Transmitting DNA sequences to the stars

Filed under: Link Posts,Plants — Tags: , , — James @ 1:58 am

It’s a gloriously non-sensical project. To mark the 35th anniversary of the Drake-Sagan transmission, a guy named Joe Davis flew down to Puerto Rico and used the Arecibo radio telescope* to transmit the genetic sequence that encodes for the protein rubisco** to three nearby stars. While covering some awesomeness (using the most powerful radio transmitter on the planet to broadcast signals into space from an iPhone), and some criticisms (what is a DNA sequence going to mean to extra terrestrial life that almost certainly won’t contain DNA and absolutely wouldn’t use the same sequences to encode for the same amino acids), the author left one key question unanswered. Which plant’s rubisco sequence was shouted out to the cosmos?

Fortunately he posted the sequence here, and using BLAST it was easy to identify the gene as belonging to Nicotiana tabacum. The tobacco plant. Seriously? The gene that encodes for the rubisco protein is one of the more widely sequenced plant genes out there, as differences in the sequence are often used to study the relatedness of different plant species. He could pick from the sequences of organisms ranging from coconut to corn, from ferns to redwoods and the most worthy plant that came to mind was tobacco?

Oh well.

*Another awesome bit of science operated by Cornell

**Rubisco is the plant protein that plants use to grab CO2 molecules out of the air to turn into sugars. Providing us with both clean air and food to eat. It’s actually not very good at its job, which is why plants have to make so much of it. So much, in fact, that it truly is the single most abundant protein on the planet.

C4 plants like corn, sorghum, and sugar cane have actually redesigned their leaves and the way they do photosynthesis to get around the failings of rubisco.

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