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Recently, I received a suggestion from a member of NCSE that we debunk a widespread piece of disinformation circulating about the coronavirus vaccines that use mRNA to generate an immune response. The false claim is that these vaccines can alter human DNA. Sounds scary, right? But, you will not be surprised to learn, it’s totally false.
I could go through all the reasons that it is impossible for the mRNA vaccines to alter human DNA — and believe me, I will — but I think you know by now that I’d rather give students the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. Ideally, they will also leave class with some sticky little piece of information that not only debunks the current rumor, but also prepares them to cope with the next bit of misinformation that might come at them down the road.
The fundamental problem with the false claim about mRNA vaccines, as with many assertions of gene-altering threats, is that, barring purely physical insults like radiation, making changes in human DNA is not that easy. If it were easy, organisms as complicated as humans, with genomes made up of billions of base pairs and coding for tens of thousands of genes, would have had a hard time successfully reproducing for millions of years. (To say nothing of the canopy plant, with 150 billion base pairs.) Quality control and defense against genomic tampering are functions very much favored by evolution.
However, the reason such alarming claims aren’t rejected out of hand is that very few people are likely to hang on to the necessary level of biological inside-baseball knowledge. Maybe you teachers will easily follow along with my explanations of what it would take for a piece of RNA to successfully change the human genome, but your students’ eyes are likely to glaze over pretty quickly….DNA? RNA? Nucleus? Cytoplasm? Endonuclease? Reverse Transcriptase? Stop! Too. Much. Jargon. And that’s your current students — what about the people who have been out of school for decades? They are definitely not going to remember how all this stuff works.
Personally, I think it’s all rather beautiful and awe-inspiring to learn how our cells do all the things they do to keep us alive. Right now, all through your body, lots of cells are busily dividing, making a full-length copy of a genome that is three billion letters long in a ridiculously small space — like assembling an aircraft carrier in your hall closet. You don’t even have to think about it — your cells just take care of it, no problem. Thanks, cells! To my way of thinking, to be genuinely appreciative, the least we can do is learn about what they’re up to.
But I digress. However cool we think the molecular biology of the cell, most people will not retain much of what they ever learned about it. They may retain some vague sense that DNA something something RNA something something protein something something mutations. And when your grasp of the subject is that tenuous, a claim that mRNA vaccines can alter DNA may not seem that preposterous.
But if they’re not going to remember the details, here’s the sticky little piece of information that I want your students to never forget. The human genome is well-protected. If you want to change it, you’d better come with the right set of tools. To make this idea stick, how about doing the following exercise with your students? Tell them this:
Tomorrow I will be giving a very difficult test. You may bring up to eight objects to class (or your remote desk). You can bring textbooks, cheat sheets, energy bars, your genius aunt — whatever you want. If you bring the right objects, I guarantee that you will receive not only an A on this test, but an A for the entire year.
When your students appear the next day, post the following list on the board:
- A hairbrush and a hair ribbon
- A toothbrush and toothpaste
- A lollipop
- A magnifying glass
- A rubber band
- A canvas bag large enough to hide in
Tell the students that these are the objects that they needed to bring to class in order to ace the test.
I’m pretty sure none of your students will have assembled that particular collection, so you won’t have to give anyone an A for the whole year on the basis of this test. There may be some moaning and gnashing of teeth, but the instructions were clear — they had to bring the right things and none of them did.
So that may seem a little mean, but they will like the next part.
One of my children's favorite books was My Father’s Dragon (have your students read it — it’s very short). In this delightful book, a boy tells the story of his father, Elmer Elevator, who, when he was a boy, traveled to Wild Island to rescue a winged baby dragon. The dragon had been captured and forced into servitude flying ferocious animals back and forth across an inconveniently-situated wide muddy river. Elmer was aided in his preparations by a wise old alleycat who had visited Wild Island. Together, these are the things they decided Elmer should take on his journey:
The night before my father sailed he borrowed his father’s knapsack and he and the cat packed everything very carefully. He took chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a package of rubber bands, black rubber boots, a compass, a tooth brush and a tube of tooth paste, six magnifying glasses, a very sharp jackknife, a comb and a hairbrush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, an empty grain bag with a label saying “Cranberry,” some clean clothes, and enough food to last my father while he was on the ship. He couldn’t live on mice, so he took twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six apples, because that’s all the apples he could find in the pantry.
Over the course of Elmer’s adventure, he uses each of these objects. For example, the toothbrush and toothpaste serve to distract a hostile rhinoceros that threatens to drown Elmer in the pool he weeps in because his horn (the book says “tusk,” but rhino horns aren’t teeth) has grown grey and ugly. Only the jackknife, which Elmer eventually uses to saw through the ropes holding the dragon, makes any sense in advance. But every object is used, and every one is essential; without each and every one of them, Elmer would never have reached and rescued the baby dragon.