An Interview with Nessa Carey

An Interview with Nessa Carey

Professor Carey is the author of The Epigenetic Revolution and Junk DNA: A Journey Through The Dark Matter Of The Genome, which discuss the biology behind so much of life around us. I was fortunate to interview her during the recent Biology lectures we attended at the University of Warwick. A former Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Imperial College, London, with a virology PhD from the University of Edinburgh, she worked in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry for thirteen years and is now International Director for the UK’s leading organisation for technology transfer professionals.   

In both her books, and in the lecture she gave, Professor Carey underscores the complexity of the gene switching process. It appeared very complicated and I asked whether there were laws that led to this complexity.  She elucidated, “There are no underlying laws driving the process, and I think that biological systems are very good at being self-sustaining”. She went on,  “The mistake biologists make is thinking linearly. Instead of searching for the starting point in any process, since most do not have starting points we should rather accept that these systems have developed, and instead ask what advantages these developments give”. 

In her latest book, Junk DNA, Professor Carey mentions that a lot of what we know about junk DNA, which is the 98% of the genome that does not code for proteins, has been found through investigating genetic based diseases. I questioned whether this implied that genetic based diseases are due to alterations in the junk DNA. She responded,  “Individual alterations in junk DNA are unlikely to result in these dramatic diseases, and it is more likely that such alterations would only make us slightly more susceptible to some diseases, and slightly more resistant to others.”

With power comes great responsibility.  In both their lectures, Dr Helen Pilcher and Professor Carey mentioned a revolutionary new gene-editing technique called CRISPR-CAS9, which is effectively a molecular scissor; and yet its use is still restricted. She explained, “At the moment, we are not allowed to do germ line transformations”, expanding,  “One cannot change something that will be passed on to future generations”.

Ethical issues constantly arise in biology, and she cited that ethics plays a vital role in research. Although one could take an embryo and remove faulty genes, should one? My thoughts are, probably not. “I suspect we will see that change”, she responded.

To my final question; Is junk DNA research really where the money is? Professor Carey replied, “Partly. There are those scientists that like industries where they can collect large amounts of data. You can generate these huge sequences much more cheaply than previously”.

She then raised the interesting point that, “Biology embraces all of human activity, and is equally prone to fashions as well as people supporting particular teams". So you will get the ‘All junk DNA is meaningless team', the  ‘Secret of life is in the junk DNA team’, and the ‘I don’t like the way you use the phrase – Junk DNA – team’.

In her opinion this genetic research is going through the peak of ‘overinflated expectations’, almost certainly to be followed by ‘the trough of disappointment’ when people start understanding that although it’s an important part of biology, so are many, if not all, the other biological disciplines.

It was a privilege to interview such a talented yet humorous biologist, public speaker and author, whose books are sprinkled with great analogies; a personal favourite being, ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass!'. As Leo Shen (L6, BH) enthused after the lecture, "Professor Carey’s talk has fuelled my curiosity to find out more about the nature of epigenetics and has opened up many different opportunities for me to seek in the world of biology!"

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