A new “picture language” needs to be developed if we’re ever going to decipher the torrent of information that has been unleashed by the sequencing of genomes.

That was the theme of Dr. Sydney Brenner’s address to the Gairdner symposium last Friday. Brenner won the 2002 Nobel Prize in medicine for unravelling the genetic program that directs the growth of the C. Elegans worm from an embryo.

Now that the human genome has been sequenced, scientists are faced with the much harder task of trying to figure out how the genes actually direct the inner workings of cells. Exhaustively cataloguing the functions and interactions of each gene will never work, Brenner said, because with roughly 20,000 active genes in a typical human cell, there are just too many.

Brenner instead suggested an approach similar to the way workers assemble cars at an auto plant. The workers who assemble the final product don’t worry about how each part works—they just need to know how everything fits together.

He thinks we need to develop a new symbolic language that can capture the essence of gene interactions without fussing with the details. This language might be similar to circuit diagrams, where parts that perform the same function are represented by the same symbol, no matter how different their structures are.

Like our content? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required