Recently I came across a very funny meme. Well, it’s funny to a biology nerd like me.
Anyone can relate to being asked to do more of something and pouting and saying, “well now I am not doing it”. It is funny, though, to think of a flower doing this, and yet, this meme comes from a true story. There was a man named Richard Jorgensen. In the 1980’s he was working for a plant gene company and they wanted a really brilliantly colored flower to show off to their investors. Jorgensen picked a simple (easily altered) flower, petunias. Jorgensen knew the exact gene that coded for the purple color in petunias. He added MORE of this gene, thinking that it would make the petunias a more brilliant purple. Makes sense, right? It turned out, when he made this addition, the petunias stopped making the color purple all together! This was astounding. He had no idea why this would happen. As I said, it seemed pretty simple. If you add more purple, you should get more purple!
It turned out that cells have a defense system called RNA interference (RNAi). In the life cycle of cells, they reproduce their DNA through two steps, transcription and translation. In transcription, a “scribe” molecule makes tons of copies of the DNA, this is called mRNA. This mRNA is then sent outside of the nucleus where it is then translated into proteins that then make up everything that we are.
RNAi is a way to protect cells from the danger of viruses. If RNAi sees anything that looks dangerous, it shuts it down right there. It doesn’t want the mRNA to be used to make lots of copies of something that could harm the cell. One of the major red flags that the RNAi look for is a mirror image of something. If there are multiple identical copies of something, that’s often a sign of a virus. So when Jorgensen and his team added more identical copies of the purple gene, the RNAi thought it was a virus and proceeded to delete anything that looked like it, all of the purple genes. To the RNAi, the harmless extra purple looked like something harmful.
What Jorgensen and team thought was going to be a simple way to make a beautiful flower to show off to investors turned into a journey of discovering, where we learned about the process of RNA interference. This discovery has led to medication for liver disease, and has led to many more medicines that are currently in clinical trials for cardiovascular diseases, bleeding disorders, and cystic fibrosis. This story and the memes I chose to accompany it seems like such a silly and roundabout way of discovery, but not only has it led to many important advancements in science, but it got me thinking about how we can often act like the petunia.
Today’s gospel reading (Luke 12:39-48) talks of two servants who were given responsibility. One does poorly and all responsibility is taken from him, while the other does well and is given more responsibility. As I read it, I felt like I didn’t really want to be either of the servants. I want to be given a little responsibility, do it well, and then just maintain that level. I don’t want to be given more. That sounds like a lot of work.
Think of it in a real life scenario. How many times have you been going along, happy as a clam, taking care of everything that God has set in front of you: your family, your job, coaching your kid’s team, maybe even helping with a church group, when you’re asked to be president of that group or your church needs adorers for a time slot you don’t want. That extra work, that extra time is not something you really want. Or what if the new thing given to you is bigger like a relative gets very sick and needs a care taker? When that happens, do you get overwhelmed and act like the petunia? “Well now I am not doing it”. We can shut down and think that too much is being asked and that now we can’t do any of it. (This scenario is definitely all too real for me…)
How many of us, when put in this situation, take this huge responsibility and our first reaction is to thank God? The way it is phrased in the gospel makes it sound so easy, like “WOW! How wonderful that God trusts me enough to give me these greater responsibilities. He must think a lot of me.” But when in real life we are asked to step up for our church, our family, our community, when tragedy strikes, it doesn’t feel like such a great gift.
If you are in this situation, I’d invite you to pause, take a step back, and pray. Ask God why He has given you this big responsibility that feels like a burden. My first reaction when something heavy is put in my life is to panic and run around like a chicken with my head cut off, but today as I pray with this reading I am reminded of a powerful verse from Exodus. As the Israelites stand on the banks of the Red Sea, fleeing slavery as the Egyptians pursue them, they are terrified and freak out (just like I probably would) and Moses says, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” In these moments when much is asked of us, we must still our hearts so that we can hear God and how He wants us to proceed. We are not alone in these responsibilities. God is fighting for us and with us. It is just going to make it harder if we try to go our own way and end up fighting the responsibility AND God. That’s when it becomes overwhelming. That’s when it becomes so very easy to shut down and refuse to do anything (like the petunia). Today, be still. Give your burdens to God so that He can help you with them. Thank Him for everything in your life, the easy and the difficult. Know that He is there with you to help you through it so that you do not want to shut down and give up. You can do anything with God by your side.