Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Genetic kinship

As I run through the fields I feel a profound connection with the earth. I concentrate on my form: lengthening forward and up, striking with my midfoot so my bent knee transmits the force of each stride. My feet drum the hardened mud, kicking up puffs of dust.

I settle into the rhythm of the run and sense my ancestors treading the same paths. They ran to communicate messages and, in distant savannas, to hunt down prey, while I run for pleasure and fitness. Their lives were very different from mine but their bodies, minds and thoughts felt the same.

I am tied to my ancestors by our genetic past. The differences between us are a sniff in the sweeping plains of evolutionary history. While running, they too would have been calmed by the green brown blush of grass and trees. They would have heard the lark, smelt the mud and been shocked by the sudden white of spring blossom.

The connections run deeper still. My muscles are powered by the breakdown of sugars, a primeval metabolic pathway shared by many life forms. A key step is the reaction catalysed by GAPDH in which a sugar derivative is loaded with a high energy phosphate group.

Plants, fungi and yeast contain GAPDH, not to drive their legs but to fuel their growth. The GAPDH in the wheat of the fields I run through is around 80% similar to my own, the malarial parasite that has so plagued my ancestors shares 59% identity, the mosquito 71%.

Genomes weave a story through all life; pointing to shared origins, the inconsequence of our own brief identities and the continuity of DNA. Running is a celebration of biology, my cells are alive and my mind freewheels. I feel a connection with the twists of evolutionary past that define my present and with the living things I pass on my way.

The pictures are the Cambridgeshire fields where I run.


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