43.1 Feature: Craft Essay by Yu-Han Chao
Craft Essay for “Six Degrees of Polypeptide”
by Yu-Han Chao
Humor, however off and misplaced; love (or sex, or any other possible human connection); and poetry—these are the ways we make life more tolerable, from 7:30 am lecture to 9:50 pm lab, from first cry to final exhale.
The first line arrived unexpectedly, soaring on the wings of Eliot’s Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,” so that a noun, helicase, was verbed, and a Biology 101 joke began shaping itself into a kind of love song. (The original joke: What do DNA helicase and a teenager have in common? They both want to unzip your genes/jeans.)
A diagram: two transfer-RNAs all breast-like above the ribosome, which sits juicy and plump like a Dali lip sofa. It’s impossible to resist: what else could one call the cellular process of translation other than t-t-fucking your uneven-lipped ribosome? The codons only make it better—the anticodona dentatta seeking revenge on an unwanted, self-important intruder.
Polymerase, polypeptide, phonetype…all the words. After too much terminology, the syntax must be plain, free. Maybe another joke to lighten things up, even if it is to the tune of that awful milkshake song. A few more laughs after that, to close, because hydrophilic/hydrophobic, big P/little p too hard to resist.
The structure, however, cannot be compromised. From gentic transcription to amino acid chains that helix, pleat and fold into secondary, tertiary, quarternery structure of proteins that express or supress our nucleotides—everything is perfect, exactly the way it must be, one amino acid gone wrong a death sentence.
And so it is, biology in all its beauty as well as cruelty (and somehow in a poem, always coming out sounding dirty), harmless flirtation and hopeless longing all tangled up in jargon, code and Latin.
A call and response, universal ying and yang and everything-in-between, a love song from the poet to biology, to deep time, to the universe. Six degrees of life as it began—amino acids, protein, tissue, multicellulrity! You and I, tolerating life, and on some days, even going so far as enjoying it, just a little.