So, I think I have clearly established over the past several years of maintaining this blog that I am happy to need out on random science things. I find inspiration from questions people ask me, science that I happen upon, and things going on in my life. So when I was watching a Star Trek Next Generation episode last night where the entire crew of the Enterprise “de-evolved” into more primitive creatures my misuse of science alarms went off. Supposedly the doctor used a synthetic compound to activate a crew member’s disfunctional gene that would give them immunity to a common alien type of flu. What happened, according to the episode was that the drug activated inactive dna sections called introns which were remnants from “lower” animals.
Aside from all the other issues with this episode like the fact that there really are not higher and lower creatures according to evolution was the completely wrong description of introns. An intron is a non-coding section of dna. You can think about it kind of like an unedited paper. When you first write a paper it often contains a bunch of extra information that doesn’t support the point of the paper. Then, as you edit the paper you remove these extra sections. A gene codes for a protein. The sections that code for the protein are called exons. But this isn’t a continuous description. It is actually split up by introns, or non-coding sections. The introns get edited out during the process of making the protein.
What’s really interesting about these sections is they occur with greater frequency in more complex proteins leading researchers to investigate if these regions actually help to facilitate reordering of protein sections to make new proteins. So far, the research indicates this may be the case. The introns also seem to help prevent a particular malfunction that can prevent a gene from being expressed.
So what is my big issue with star trek misusing introns, something which very few people have even heard of? I think my biggest challenge is actually the portrayal of higher and lower evolved organisms. I think this view is part of the reason we feel that we can misuse other species in the interests of our own survival. If we didn’t think of a chicken as being a lesser evolved creature would we be able to keep it in factory farm conditions? The thing is, I really don’t think the writers for Star Trek sat there and asked “what can we write that will contribute to humans seeing themselves as being the top organism on the planet?” They probably just thought intron was an interesting word. But much like the author of Jaws realized too late, our fiction and our art can have powerful impacts on the belief patterns in our society and we need to be aware of what that power can do when we choose a “simple” plot device.