‘Stellar dust has settled./ It is green underwater now in the leaves/ of the yellow crowfoot. Its potentialities/ Are gathered together under pine litter/ As emerging flower of the pink arbutus./ It has gained the power to make itself again/ In the bone-filled egg of osprey and teal.’ Pattian Rogers, The Origin of Order

‘In the beginning was the word. The word  was not DNA. That came afterwards, when life was already established, and when it had divided the labour between two separate activities: chemical work and information storage, metabolism and replication. But DNA contains a record of the Word, faithfully transmitted through all subsequent aeons to the astonishing present…On the long arm of chromosome 1… if you read it carefully, there is a sequence of 120 letters - As Cs Gs Ts – that repeats over and over again. Between each repeat there lies a stretch of more random text, but the 120-letter paragraph keeps coming back like a familiar theme tune, in all more than 100 times. This short paragraph is perhaps as close as we can get to an echo of the original Word. This ‘paragraph’ is a small gene, probably the single most active gene in the human body. Its 120 letters are constantly being coped into a short filament of RNA. The copy is known as 5S RNA.’  Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000


The word calling order -

being, instruments of life,

from malleable molecules,

colossal fires of existence;

atomic principles of freedom,

chaos. From spreading stars -

light and water -

green and blood;

simple amoeba heart

coagulating into fish,

a flower coming

to earth and light,

as decorative fulfilment,

wording of early script -

leaves, eyes, animal thud, 

heavy on the written Earth;

evolved organic transcripts,

born in the first black belly.

‘In a sense, human flesh is made of stardust.’ Nigel Calder, the Key to the Universe, BBC, 1977

Your Hands are Stars

Your hands are stars -

bright space molecules

fallen through this Universe

for black billenia. In darkness,

see they shine - learned dust-flesh;

spun white skeleton, light calcified.

Trees are alight with damp green stars,

leaf bones fragile as a mouse’s hand -

are sucking rain, sun,

from Earth’s wet halo.

When you touch me at night -

two silver prints like starfish.


‘RNA was the Word. RNA left behind five little clues to its priority over both protein and DNA. Even today, the ingredients of DNA are made by modifying the indredients of RNA, not by a more direct route. Also DNA’s letter Ts are made from RNA’s letter Us. Many modern enzymes, though made of protein, rely on small molecules of RNA to make them work. Moreover, RNA, unlike DNA and protein, can copy itself without assistance: give it the right ingredients and it will stitch them together into a message. Wherever you look in the cell, the most primitive and basic functions require the presence of RNA. It is an RNA-dependent enzyme that takes the message, made of RNA, from the gene. It is an RNA-containg machine, the ribosome, that translates that message, and it is a little RNA molecule that fetches and carries the amino acids for the translation of the gene’s message. But above all, RNA - unlike DNA - can act as a catalyst, breaking up and joining other molecules including RNAs themselves. It can cut them up, join the ends together, make some of its own building blocks, and elongate a chain of RNA. It can even operate on itself, cutting out a chunck of text and splicing the free ends together again. The discovery of these remarkable properties of RNA in the early 1980s… transformed our understanding of the origin of life. It now seems probable that the very first gene, the ‘ur-gene’, was a combined replicator-catalyst, a word that consumed the chemicals around it to duplicate itself. It may well have been made of RNA. Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘During the dearth and lack of those two thousand/ million years of death, one wishes primarily/ Just to grasp tightly, to compose, to circle,/ To link and fasten skilfully, as one/ Crusty grey bryozoan builds upon another,/ To be anything particular…To become godlike with transformation.’ Pattian Rogers, The Voice of the Precambrian Sea

‘Henceforth, for the animate, to last was to mean to change,/ existing both for one’s own sake, and that of all others,/ forever in jeopardy.’ WH Auden, 1907-1973, Unpredictable but Providential

‘The DNA makes a simpler molecule called RNA which interacts with ribosomes which churn out proteins based on the code in the genome. Some proteins then interact with a structure called the Golgi complex, which inspects packages and labels proteins before handing them over for distribution elsewhere in the cell.’ BBC, 2003

‘It is the classic case of chicken and egg: which came first, DNA or protein? It cannot have been DNA, because DNA is a helpless passive piece of mathematics, which catalyses no chemical reactions. It cannot have been protein, because protein is pure chemistry with no known way of copying itself accurately. It seems impossible either that DNA invented protein or vice versa. This might have remained a baffling and strange condundrum had not the word left a trace of itself faintly drawn on the filament of life. Just as we know now that eggs came long before chickens (the reptilian ancestors of all birds laid eggs), so there is growing evidence that RNA came before proteins. RNA is a chemical substance that links the two worlds of DNA and protein. It is used mainly in the translation of the message from the alphabet of DNA to the alphabet of proteins. But in the way it behaves, it leaves little doubt that it is the ancestor of both. RNA was Greece to DNA’s Rome: Homer to her Virgil.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000


Chemical Word -

spirit of life incarnate

in nascent chemistry -

guddling among Elements;

such light upon the water,

which will knit beams -

muscular feel of current,

into verdant dreams -

into molecular flesh,

swarming real green.

Print of the Word -

enshrined, infinite

while Earth lives.

Still star-sailing

whispering anywhere again -

hot rocks, mountains, water;

something found

out of darkness.

Communication of the Word,

translator of idea into flesh -

organic root; earth-nub;

realisation of the Word.

Active Principle of the Word -

original messenger, Olympian

bearing creativity;

life’s viral fires.

First Art of Chemistry -

first artist of the Word;

understanding desire

to be, to make, create,

for no reason but life,

expression and being.

Breaking - stitching

swarming molecules;

feeling something possible

will come into existence -

cradling one wet cell

dreaming of the flower

when no flower will be

for three billion years.

Why are men afraid to shout

these fabulous Earth miracles,

such shining, unlikely principles -

from mud and light will come us all.

RNA - understanding molecular creativity,

organic artistry, unextinguishable by time -

composer, conductor of chemicals

dreaming in water - such journey

to the white Poles, deserts, mountains,

from her bowl, sea-womb, light-seed -

spectacular travel to wing and eye,

breathing under still water, hooking

possibility from dark atoms of nothing;

connecting with star vibrations - dust.

Learner, teacher, catalysing knowledge;-

the Word driving a fantastic chemistry.

‘Curiously, although his theory emphasized male-female distinctions, his description in the Origin always placed the primordial ancestor, or ‘the ancient progenitor’ outside, or previous to, gender or sexed system; an ‘it’, never a ‘he’ or ‘she’. Gillian Beer, Introduction to the Origin of Species 1859, Oxford University Press, 1988

‘Back before the dinosaurs, before the first fishes, before the first worms, before the first plants, before the first fungi, before the first bacteria, there was an RNA world - probably somewhere around four billion years ago, soon after the beginning of planet earth’s very existence and when the universe itsef was only 10 billion years old. We do not know  what these ribo-organisms looked like. We can only guess at what they did for a living, chemically speaking. We do not what came before them. We can be pretty sure they once existed because of clues to RNA’s role that survive in living organisms today. These ribo-organisms had a big problem. RNA is an unstable susbstance which falls apart within hours. Had these organisms ventured anywhere hot or tried to grow too large they would have faced what geneticists call an error catastrophe – a rapid decay of the message in their genes. One of them invented by trial and error a new and tougher version of RNA called DNA and a system for making RNA copies from it, including a machine we’ll call the proto-ribosome. It had to work fast and it had to be accurate. So it stiched together genetic copies three letters at a time, the better to be fast and accurate. Each threesome came flagged with a tag to make it easier for the proto-ribosome to find, a tag made of amino acid. Much later, those tags themselves became joined togther to make proteins and the three letter word became a form of code for the proteins – the genetic code itself. (Hence, to this day the code consists of three letter words each spelling out a particular one of twenty amino acids as part of a recipe for a protein.) And so was born a more sophisticated creature that stores its genetic recipe in its DNA, made its working machines of protein and used RNA to bridge the gap between them. Her name was LUCA – the Last Universal Common Ancestor.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘Last year has also witnessed the unveiling of the first molecular map of the ribosome, the cell's protein factory. This has given us startling new details about its structure and may boost support for RNA (ribonucleic acid) being the first "living" molecule on Earth.’ BBC Online

Note from the author
exploring the project

    The Human Genome Project (1)
    The Word
    Genetic Transcription
    & Translation
    Nature of the Genome
    All Life is One

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