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Walter Dörfler

Institute of Genetics, University of Cologne; Institute of Clinical and Molecular Virology, University of Erlangen


"Unknown Coding Capacities in DNA and the Ability to Develop Language"


Since 1961, I have been working in basic research in molecular genetics and molecular virology. One of my interests has been the insertion of foreign (viral) DNA into mammalian genomes and the consequences of these insertions for foreign DNA and for the epigenetic destabilization of the host cell genome. In the course of these studies, my laboratory discovered the function of DNA methylation as a long-term regulatory signal in gene expression. As a secondary interest, I have always studied foreign languages.  

Early on in work in molecular genetics, I have been aware of the similarities between genetics and linguistics. Indeed, there are remarkably many parallel structures. Under the heading of Medical Hypotheses, I have summarized some of these thoughts, and I will introduce them during this meeting. They are hypotheses and cannot be equated with my work in molecular genetics, although I consider these hypotheses to be en par with the latter in seriousness and potential for future considerations. The core of my presentation will focus on the deeply held suspicion that the macromolecule DNA has a far greater coding capacity than currently appreciated. The ability to develop language arose somehow from this un-discovered coding repertoire of DNA in a way I cannot describe, let alone prove with present technology. There is evidence for “convergent gene transcriptional specializations in specific song and speech brain regions of avian vocal learners and humans” (Pfenning et al. Science 346, 2014. doi: 10.1126/science.1256846).

I will also elaborate on an even more general idea: DNA is hypothesized to function as a receptor for interactions with the sum total of information in the universe. The constant pressure of this information flux, for which we altogether lack a sensory or technical detector, has been the driving force in evolution – from simple oligonucleotides to the most complex DNA coding sequences whose meaning we are trying to decipher today. A possible prebiotic role of formamide in the synthesis of nucleobases has been reported (Saladino et al., Chembiochem 5:1558-1566, 2004). Should biological research strive to venture beyond the concepts we all presently cherish, bold steps will have to be taken. I cannot claim that my hypothetical thoughts will be able to lead the way. However, they may encourage the younger generation of scientists to think ahead of their daily work and the fascinating results present day research still holds as the prize. However, already Shakespeare had one of his heroes exclaim (1601/1602): “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” - Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio. 


W. Doerfler. Surface charge patterns as recognition signals in nucleic acid molecules. Medical Hypotheses 6, 1171-1175, 1980.

W. Doerfler. In search of more complex genetic codes - Can linguistics be a guide? Medical Hypotheses 9, 563-579, 1982.

W. Doerfler. DNA – a molecule in search of additional functions: recipient of pool wave emissions? - A hypothesis. Medical Hypotheses 75:291-293, 2010.

W. Doerfler. DNA – a monitor for dark energy? A Hypothesis. Manuscript.


Website: http://www.genetik.uni-koeln.de/groups/Doerfler