Eric Werner of the University of Oxford published a blog piece in PLOS which I have liberally edited below. I think it is an important development in thinking about design in biology.
“The chimp really started people wondering if genes can account for the difference between humans and animals. Since the genes of chimps and humans are 98.8% identical, the differences between chimps and humans cannot be the result of the information in those few different genes.
Humans, chimps and mice are very different even if made of the many of the same parts. The information for construction and structure lies not in the information that describes the parts, rather in an architectural plan that is used by agents to construct the organism.
The information resides in the genome, but not in the genes. It is in the network architecture that consists of coding and non coding areas that determine the timing and spatial patterning of cells that ultimately results in the development of the organism.
Many traits are the result of the mutation of genes. However most genes are instructions for building parts so a mutation in a gene results in a change of a part not the overall architecture. The information for the form is not in the parts-genes. It is in the control architecture, the regulatory networks of control units, most likely contained in the vast non parts coding regions of the genome.
Let’s call these control networks cenes for control genes. Cenes can be very basic units of control, such as protein activators, or cell directives. They can combine to form networks of cooperative, conditional control. These can be linked to form yet larger cenes. The overall control network that guides the development of an organism will be called its cenome.
Many biologists have consistently confused the genes used to build the parts with the map used to build the organism. This mistake is behind the confusion about what makes us different from mice, chimps, flies or worms when our genes are similar and the gene number is very close.
The number of genes has little to do with the complexity of the organism or the constitutive information required to form the organism. The true measure of complexity of an organism is the length of the minimal genome that is necessary to construct the organism.
The genome contains the program of development, the cenome, as well as the instructions for making the parts used to build the organism.
There are genes for parts and there are genes (or cenes) that function as commands. They regulate the use of the parts-genes and they meta-regulate other command genes.
Genetic changes are not the cause of our humanity. Genes are parts and regulators they contain no information that is relevant to our humanity.
Genetics is to a large extent irrelevant to questions of our nature and of our evolution. Genes are as essential as bricks to a building yet neither genes nor bricks have any information that would help in developing an organism or building a house.
This will not be the century of the gene. It will be the century of the genome and its regulatory architecture, the cenome.”