In the halls of scientific nomenclature, there are two terms that are, and have been for some time now, ripe for the chopping block.  One is “imaginary number,” which conveys a totally false impression that numbers incorporating the square root of negative one are somehow whimsical flights of fancy that need only be taken seriously when attempting to summon unicorns.  The other is “Junk DNA”, a term that traditionally refers to any section of DNA that does not directly code for a protein.

Fortunately, complex number has pretty well routed imaginary number, but curiously, in spite of decades of research that has proven conclusively that Junk DNA is anything but, no alternative term for non-coding DNA has managed to stick itself to our brains just yet.  And so we tend to relegate that 98% of our genetic code that doesn’t contain a protein blueprint to the trash heap of our regard as gathered detritus from our evolutionary journey instead of marveling at the multifarious wonders it is capable of.

Ever since the 1980s, we’ve known that there are great mysteries lying in non-coding DNA regions, but until 2012 there was no voice to, Lorax-like, Speak for the Junk, to make their workings accessible and dynamic.  But that year a book came out by Nessa Carey, a biologist with a career path as varied as the functions of the nucleic acids she championed, The Epigenetics Revolution, and just like that, DNA’s 98% had the conduit at last to tell us its stories.

Nessa Carey

What makes The Epigenetics Revolution (and its sequel, 2015’s Junk DNA), so powerful a tool in the communication of a bracing new universe in scientific research is Carey’s seemingly bottomless gift for metaphor, a finely honed ability to take an elegant dance between nucleic acid, proteins, enzymes, and other compounds, and recast it in terms accessible to everybody, but without losing the essential features of the science at hand.

That’s an astonishingly rare gift, but in reading about her life we can begin to discern something of its origin.  She describes herself as benefiting, “from being of a generation where no-one – parents or teachers – cared what you were reading, as long as you were reading.  So I was able to indulge myself in everything that seemed interesting.”  She grew up next to a library, and regularly raided it for reading material, not limiting herself to any one particular genre.

That unwillingness to draw artificial boundaries between interests would go on to be the hallmark of Carey’s career.  After completing her A levels, she went to the University of Edinburgh to study veterinary science in spite of a fur allergy and a keen disinterest in the course material.  It was one of the hardest college tracks to get into, and she had applied largely in the hope that she wouldn’t get accepted in one of those life decisions that make complete sense to humans but doubtlessly baffle cats and other aliens observing our species.  Sometimes we are just Done with something, but can’t end it ourselves, and so we reach for something unobtainable so that somebody else can say You’re Done and we can say We Tried.

Carey was Done with the “treadmill” of the education system, and aimed for the seemingly impossible goal of getting into veterinary school when fate delivered up one of its devious ironies and accepted her into the program.  She didn’t remain long, however, before turning her talents towards the natural next step in her career: forensic science.  For five years she worked in London’s Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Lab while taking classes at night until an opportunity arose to join a PhD program studying a topic she found interesting in a city she loved.

It will surprise perhaps nobody at this point to hear that she took her PhD in veterinary medicine.

Her subsequent academic career was a testament to the mantra Breadth In All Things: she studied the maedi-visna virus that attacks sheep for her doctorate, and human genetics as a post-doc, only to end up as a senior lecturer in molecular biology before making her way at last to the private sector as a Director and Head of Biology at a chain of pharmaceutical and epigenetic research companies from 2001 to 2014.

Now, if there’s one thing that movies have taught us it’s that the private scientific sector is populated by megalomaniacs seeking to make billions by grafting sharks onto orphans and selling them to the Russian military.  While we hold the academic scientist to be a noble if eccentric truth-seeker, we often demonize the company scientist as a tool selling her brains to the highest and least responsible bidder.

That is a pretty massive and heavily reinforced public image to combat, and most company scientists can be forgiven for keeping their head down, going about their work, and not even attempting the battle, but not so Carey.  Instead of apologizing for the private sector as a lamentable growth on the gleaming face of Selfless Scientific Research, she points out its advantages: “Industry is generally set up to enable its staff, so there tends to be good support, good infrastructure, clear metrics, a focus on teamwork and strong management systems.  These are often less developed in the academic sector.  I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, just that I worked better in the more structured environment.”  It is not a matter of good versus evil, but rather of giving scientists the most variety of choice in finding a management and project style that matches the way they think and work.

During her time working as Senior Director in External Research and Development Innovation at Pfizer she published The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance.  Her job involved finding new ways for Pfizer to identify and collaborate with promising new work in the field of epigenetics, and so it made sense for her to write a book to explain to the rest of the world just what epigenetics is and stands to accomplish in the near future.

Epigenetics is the study of how cells’ manipulation of gene expression (whether a gene is turned on or off, and for how long) affects the overall characteristics of its parent organism.  If genetics tells us what we have the potential to become thanks to our inherited DNA code, epigenetics tells us how our body enlists that code to make us who we are.  Environmental factors, developmental programming, and genetic errors in non-coding regions of our DNA can all contribute to how long each of our genes is turned on, with major implications for what we ultimately become.

If the study of epigenetics broadly considered is the hero of The Epigenetics Revolution, 2015’s Junk DNA is the spinoff sequel that somehow bests its original source material (think Frasier from Cheers and you’ll be in the ballpark).  Here, Junk DNA, one of the major supporting characters in the epigenetic story, takes center stage, and Carey takes us on a dizzying and exciting tour of all the things our non-coding DNA does without which we simply could not exist: its crucial role in regulating eukaryotic gene expression, its ability to create small strands of RNA that interfere with enzymes’ ability to translate genes into mRNA, its part in regulating cell death and cancer through telomeres, its position as a central player in the splitting of cells, and its use of repetitions to clear an area of proteins that might have been used for other cellular jobs.  That’s a lot of Good Biological Work for something most commonly known as “Junk” and Carey’s depictions of our cells’ limitless cleverness in harnessing these regions (and the tragedy that can happen when something goes wrong there) is pushed forward by a Feynmanian gift for recasting the technical in the terms of the everyday.

Now a consultant helping institutions translate their basic science into impactful innovations, and academics talk to people who aren’t other academics, Carey’s work takes her all over the world and in the spaces in between she is already assembling a third book, on gene editing.  The road has been long, and the seeming detours many, but they were all needed to produce someone with the humor, breadth of experience, and cross-communicative abilities of a Nessa Carey, Lorax of the Junk DNA, author, scientist.

Lead image Nessa Carey via Twitter

FURTHER READING:  It will come as no particular surprise that I recommend both of Carey’s books highly.  If you’re going to read just one I’d go with Junk DNA, though it is focused more on the biology and less on history, while The Epigenetics Revolution contains longer stretches talking about the early experiments that established that there is more to us than the strict sequence of our protein-coding genes.  If you’re going to read them both (and you should), I’d say Epigenetics then Junk.

STAR TREK SURVEY: Every once in a while, when I know a scientist has some interest in Star Trek I can’t resist asking who their ultimate three person Away Team would be, put together from all of the series.  Carey’s is Captain Janeway, Lieutenant Uhuru, and Doctor Crusher.  We share one of these, but you’ll just have to guess which.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3.