One of the strangest episodes in the history of biology occurred in 1953. A physicist named George Gamow, who is best known for his work on the Big Bang, sat down and read a new paper by two biologists named James Watson and Francis Crick. They reported that DNA is arranged as a double helix. Gamow then wondered how DNA encodes proteins. DNA used four “letters” in its genes, while proteins are built from a chemical alphabet of twenty amino acids. He realized that the question turned life into a problem in cryptography. Gamow came up with an explanation for life’s code that turned out to be wildly wrong. But it prompted other researchers to crack the code.
In the new issue of Nautilus (a new magazine about science and philosophy), I’ve written a feature about the history and future of the genetic code. There’s still a lot we don’t understand very well about the genetic code–for example, why all living things use the same one. But at the same time, scientists are learning how to alter the code, to generate forms of life fundamentally different from anything that came before. Check it out.