Exorcising flawed concepts of Hox function

beetle hox

One of those difficult misconceptions that is hard to root out of people's heads is the idea that individual genes 'make' something. We all have this bias, this tendency to reify the gene into something concrete—scientists do it all the time, too. You can see it in the list of gene names at OMIM, for instance; many are named after diseases or their consequences in adults. The message of which I try to always remind myself (not always successfully) is that genes don't make things, interactions between collections of genes and the environment make things. Biology arises out of the processes, not the structures; it's the reactions, not the end-product.

A paper in the latest BioEssays reminds me of this. It's a short review of Hox genes and insect wing formation that carries the same message, that morphology is a consequence of patterns of gene interactions.

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