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April 30, 2014 at 9:19 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

DNA: A Love Story

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

"A DNA microarray of part of the human genome structure." Photo Credit: The Guardian

This past week - April 25 to be exact - was National DNA Day, celebrating the 11th anniversary of the launch of the Human Genome Project.

Did you celebrate it?!

I didn't either. But I do recognize the incredible phenomenon that is DNA.

We hear about DNA every day on crime TV shows and in considering hereditary traits, but while DNA is a household word in it's practical usage, we have seemed to lose the sub-microscopic and amazing understanding of life's building block. In the interest of this, let's return to the basics of DNA as a means to appreciate its wonders in the practical world.

Getting to Know You

The story of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) double helix is well known in molecular biology circles as a race to solve the puzzle among various scientists of the day. It's history unfolds from the late 1800's until today and continues to progress rapidly.

In 1953 with the discovery of the almost artistic structure of DNA, the double helix was first proposed by Nobel laureates Watson and Crick, an American-British team working at Cambridge. I myself, as a young scholar, made a nerdy pilgrimage to the famed Cavendish where this discovery took place.To my disappointment, it was a bunch of classrooms and labs much like every other lab I had seen prior, nothing spectacular, nothing that spoke to its greatness, but still the history of that place remains.

From that time in early 1950's, DNA and the hereditary code continued on to progress into the field of genetics and ambitious minds eventually set out to map out the whole of man's genetic DNA code, the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. However, the journey is far from over.

"A computer rendering of a fragment of the human genome" Photo Credit: The Telegraph

Discovery and increased understanding continue to this day, pushing the boundaries of this new frontier. As a scientist, I must marvel at the enormity of that knowledge - the more I learn about DNA, the more I stand in awe of the complexity of life. 

You Build Me Up

Every living thing contains a DNA code for the passing of its traits - a code for every, single part of the functioning organism. For a single cell organism like bacteria of course, this is more simple than, say, a human. Consider all that your parents passed along on to you - not only your looks and tendencies, but the sort of things we rarely consider - things like your stomach cells' ability to make acid, your lung cells' ability to absorb oxygen, your muscle cells' ability to move the body, and your brain cells' ability to create thoughts or emotions - the list is endless.  Every cell and all the intricate workings of our body is coded simply in chemicals coming together in a spiral formation smaller than most microscopes can see.

"One Human Genome" Photo Credit: Bubble News

DNA, as a structure, exists in a hierarchy of substances coming together. On an anatomic level, DNA is nothing more than hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorous. These atoms come together and bind together to make four different molecules. For simplicity, call them A,G,T and C. Exquisitely, A binds with G and T with C. These pairs in turn get stacked together in a "just so" order making the helical (spiral) structure which creates a code that is our seemingly infinite bundle of genetic traits. These tremendous strings of molecule code and spiral is compacted into the nucleus of each and every cell.  In humans, this amounts to about three billion A-T or G-C pairs.

DNA: A Love Story

Obviously, this is beyond the "Readers Digest," simplified explanation of DNA. I hope it does, however, illustrate the complexity of this code that defines not only us, but every single living thing. While we may understand the science, the fact that this does happen, that all this comes together to create living, breathings things, is nothing short of miraculous. In fact, I've heard it said that a random spark producing even a single strand of DNA is akin to going to the moon and finding that molecules have randomly come together forming a Rolex watch that keeps perfect time, but even beyond that, a Rolex with the ability to come together with another Rolex and produce an equally fine watch sharing the traits of its parent watches! Truly, the more I understand, the more I am amazed.

Yet, with all we now know today, we are just scratching the surface in using this code to solve crime, determine paternity or help people medically for instance. Given the momentum of our understanding and use, I'm excited for our future.

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