Reading the Canticle of the Sun recently during my personal morning prayer as a novice Franciscan, I found my belaboured brain wandering over the previous weeks of tutoring several 2nd year A Level biology students. The final module of study contains an exhausting procession of biotechnological methods accompanied by a never ending stream of nomenclature that is, at first glance, mind boggling. I studied my degree many moons ago when biotechnology was an emerging science. Mapping the human genome was seen as an impossibility, as PCR or polymerase chain reactions had not been invented to ease the path, and the sheer beauty of the process of DNA translation and transcription was still being unravelled and investigated.
It is a truly awesome world inside the cytoplasm and nucleus of every cell. Even the cell membrane has munificent properties – little gates and regulators that allow certain molecules and ions in and out as required. I wonder what St. Francis would have made of this microcosm of endoplasmic reticula and mitochondria? I have no doubt he would be totally enthralled and joyous at the complexity and astounding organisation. Even after studying a large portion of biological sciences for my degree and teaching similar topics endlessly, I am still delighted each time I unfold the mysteries to each new student during the year.
Biotechnology has been a steep learning curve for me. I am more at home with the delicate balance of ecosystems containing a diverse variety of animalia and plantae; or the incredible mechanisms of cell respiration and photosynthesis.
After going through the nth problem relating to the insertion of DNA into plasmids and figuring out lengths of strands cut by restriction enzymes I have begun to feel more at home in this strange nucleic world. There is a mathematical order and underlying design based upon an incredibly simple substructure relating to a double helix and four bases that order themselves in triplets to code for the myriad of proteins required by the cell in order to perfom its functions.
My friend in the etching above, Israel ben Eliezer, would have been, like Francis, overjoyed with the paradox of simplicity within complexity. He was an adept in the realms of the soul yet was cautious and thoughtful. Unlike Rabbi Adam who was greedy for knowledge and wanted to rush his progress through esoteric training. Despite stern admonitions from Israel, Adam neglected to remain awake during a complex summoning of the prophet Ezekiel and instead the Prince of Fire was manifested. The latter being spirited away the luckless rabbi and Israel remained the sole proprietor of ancient wisdom and understanding. Israel’s saving grace was his love for God, his patience and his lovingkindness to all living beings and creatures of the world. Though he lived over 300 years ago he was like a modern Francis and had the ability to talk to both plants and animals, of which he maintained there was only one person per generation who could do so. I have another etching about that but will save it for another day.
For now I shall be content and study more biotechnology and hope to gain a deeper insight into the life of bacteria and plasmids. Plasmids are litte rings of DNA found in bacteria that can be altered by genetic manipulation and then reinserted into new bacteria. The bacteria that take up the recombinant DNA from these plasmids which are simply vectors, are called transformed. The new DNA transforms the bacteria.
I sometimes wonder if our lives on the spiritual path are a little like that of the the humble plasmid. We go round in circles in our lives for ever and a day until God comes along and makes a few changes. We then continue but are different, transformed. This transformation then infects others around us as our way of being is new or different. In biotechnology, the uptake of the transformed DNA is very small, less than 1%. Yet, perhaps if enough transformation is going on around the world then at some point there will be a critical threshold that is overcome and something new will emerge, quite rapidly.
It is a thought. I shall continue to ponder on my dear little Franciscan plasmids for a while longer.
pax et bonum