Author: Kari Mugo
If someone quizzed you about DNA right now, would you know the name of the Swiss biochemist behind its initial discovery in the 1860’s or of the woman behind the discovery of the molecule’s now infamous double helix? Could you explain what CRISPR is? Or trace the story of how we got from the birthplace of mankind to Dolly the Sheep to DNA as data storage?
Aside from being the cornerstone of any good crime TV show investigation, DNA is the very stuff we are made of, and spring from. Which is why research institutions, governments, academics, scientists, and enthusiasts of all stripes have poured millions of dollars and hours into understanding it—and how it affects us.
April 25th marks National DNA Day, a day commemorating the completion of the Human Genome Project and the discovery of DNA's double helix structure in 1953. Sixty-six years on from this initial groundbreaking discovery, and sixteen years after the completion of one of the most ambitious international scientific research projects, what have we learned about ourselves through genomics, the study of DNA? In this special edition blog, Mawazo celebrates advances into genomic research and ponders how these advances impact our lives and hopes for the future.
It’s now relatively well known that James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at determining the structure of DNA, were largely indebted to Rosalind Franklin for their progress. Unfortunately, Rosalind never received any credit for her work while she was still alive. Fortunately, history is committed to making her contributions known. You can read more about Rosalind, her peers, and their discovery on the Science History Institute page.
What about Africans and their missing role in the DNA conversation?
Often touted as the birthplace of mankind, there has been far less research into Africans when it comes to genomics. Instead, “geneticists have devoted their attention almost exclusively to the small subset of Africans that migrated north to Europe tens of thousands of years later.” But, “a handful of African genomics projects are now beginning to address this imbalance,” The Scientific American investigates. For further reading on the topic of early human migration out of Africa, the National Geographic’s Genographic Project features an interactive Map of Human Migration that uses “the appearance and frequency of genetic markers in modern peoples” to “create a picture of when and where ancient humans moved around the world.”
How many letters in DNA?
The Human Genome Project which has spun off countless research projects, including National Geographic’s Map of Human Migration, begun in 1990 and in 2003 “was completed, having sequenced 99% of the 3.2 billion letters (A, C, G, T) that make up human DNA.” This is just one of many interesting facts from the U.K’s Royal Society Genetic technologies and human health project. But as the New York Times finds, the DNA alphabet used in sequencing the Human Genome Project has just grown.
“DNA is spelt out with four letters, or bases. Researchers have now built a system with eight. It may hold clues to the potential for life elsewhere in the universe and could also expand our capacity to store digital data on earth.”
This is the question Bioethicist Matthew Liao asks and attempts to answer in this article from Futurity that explores the moral ethics around gene-editing in humans. Last year, a Chinese scientist caused uproar with the first known use of CRISPR-cas9, a gene editing procedure, to genetically engineer human embryos that were brought to term. While the fate of the twin girls, genetically engineered to be HIV resistant, remains to be seen, there are many questions surrounding CRISPR, including, “what the heck is CRISPR, anyway?”
“So far scientists have used it to reduce the severity of genetic deafness in mice, suggesting it could one day be used to treat the same type of hearing loss in people. They’ve created mushrooms that don’t brown easily and edited bone marrow cells in mice to treat sickle-cell anemia. Down the road, CRISPR might help us develop drought-tolerant crops and create powerful new antibiotics. CRISPR could one day even allow us to wipe out entire populations of malaria-spreading mosquitoes or resurrect once-extinct species like the passenger pigeon.”
CRISPR is but one of many new technologies emerging around DNA. The Atlantic’s, ‘Fun With DNA,’ explores other emerging uses of the molecule from foiling criminal disguises to authenticating fine art to storing vast amounts of data and perhaps even bringing the wooly mammoth back to life.
“Scientists have already been able to fit 700 terabytes of data—roughly the equivalent of 1 million CDs—in a single gram of DNA, and it can theoretically hold far more. By some estimates, all of the data currently stored on the world’s disk drives could fit in the palm of your hand if encoded in DNA.”
Today’s blog title gets its name from the Royal Institute’s introductory video on gene editing, which you can find here.