A Challenge to the Genetic Interpretation of Biology

DNA 2014

A proposal for reformulating the foundations of biology, based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics and which is in sharp contrast to the prevailing genetic view, is published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface under the title “Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology” [citation below]. The authors, Arto Annila, Professor of physics at Helsinki University and Keith Baverstock, Docent and former professor at the University of Eastern Finland, assert that the prominent emphasis currently given to the gene in biology is based on a flawed interpretation of experimental genetics and should be replaced by more fundamental considerations of how the cell utilizes energy. There are far-reaching implications, both in research and for the current strategy in many countries to develop personalized medicine based on genome-wide sequencing. Read More →

Non-genetic Inheritance & Changing Environments

Science

In the last two decades climate change emerged as a momentous threat to ecosystems and species, calling for – politics aside – a greater interest in the adaptation abilities of the world’s creatures. Understanding and predicting how populations will respond to climate fluctuations has been attracting a wealth of research into evolutionary biology and the molecular components of evolution; with some vital questions motivating these studies: namely, how organisms will handle their new circumstances, or how populations will be able to cope with climate change in order to survive and avoid extinction. With the far-reaching impacts of climate change being felt globally, it is no wonder that scientists are desperate to understand evolution and its implications for adaptation abilities. Read More →

Can DNA Template Lead to Future Technologies?

To the right is a honeycomb of graphene atoms. To the left is a double strand of DNA. The white spheres represent copper ions integral to the chemical assembly process. The fire represents the heat that is an essential ingredient in the technique. (Anatoliy Sokolov)

To the right is a honeycomb of graphene atoms. To the left is a double strand of DNA. The white spheres represent copper ions integral to the chemical assembly process. The fire represents the heat that is an essential ingredient in the technique. (Anatoliy Sokolov)

DNA is the blueprint for life. Could it also become the template for making a new generation of computer chips based not on silicon, but on an experimental material known as graphene? That’s the theory behind a process that Stanford chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao reveals in Nature Communications (citation below). Bao and her co-authors, former post-doctoral fellows Anatoliy Sokolov and Fung Ling Yap, hope to solve a problem clouding the future of electronics: consumers expect silicon chips to continue getting smaller, faster and cheaper, but engineers fear that this virtuous cycle could grind to a halt. Read More →

Researchers Turn a Smartphone into a Biosensor

University of Illinois researchers developed a cradle and app for the iPhone to make a handheld biosensor that uses the phone’s own camera and processing power to detect any kind of biological molecules or cells. | Photo by Brian T. Cunningham

University of Illinois researchers developed a cradle and app for the iPhone to make a handheld biosensor that uses the phone’s own camera and processing power to detect any kind of biological molecules or cells. | Photo by Brian T. Cunningham

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers have developed a cradle and app for the iPhone that uses the phone’s built-in camera and processing power as a biosensor to detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules. Read More →

Synthetic Biology Research on the Rise

dna

The number of private and public entities conducting research in synthetic biology worldwide grew significantly between 2009 and 2013, according to the latest version of an interactive map produced by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The map is available online at http://www.synbioproject.org/map. Read More →

Cell Circuits Remember Their History

Engineers at MIT have developed genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results. (Credit: Liang Zong and Yan Liang)

Engineers at MIT have developed genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results. (Credit: Liang Zong and Yan Liang)

MIT engineers have created genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results, which are encoded in the cell’s DNA and passed on for dozens of generations. Read More →

The Hierarchical Structure of DNA

Introduction
All life on Earth is based on building blocks, known as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which exists in the form of a double helix. DNA is a highly elaborate and modular molecule with different levels of hierarchical complexity. In this post, we will examine some of the concepts about DNA. For those of you that are interested in fields such as astrobiology, transhumanism, and similar areas, it’s important to understand DNA as it has a direct bearing on much of the research being done in these emerging sciences today.

DNA Composition
DNA is made up of nucleotides, which are themselves constructed from a molecule of sugar, a molecule of phosphate, and a base. The base is the most crucial part of the molecule as it is essentially the carrier of the genetic information, that when combined with other bases, codes your genetic makeup. Simply put, DNA is an amazing biological molecule, which essentially makes you… you.

Image Credit: University of Utah

Bases
As mentioned, DNA at its simplest level is made up of a combination of bases; Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G), and Thymine (T). These bases exist in a chain on each strand of the double helix and join up in between the strands as complementary pairs of A-T and C-G. This sequence of base pairs is what codes for proteins to be made in your body, and thus is responsible for your appearance, your metabolism and thousands of other functions and features.

Genes
Sequences of bases that code for specific proteins to be produced are known as genes. They can be anywhere from only a few bases in length, to several million, with the average length in the human genome being approximately 3,000. For example, you can have a gene that determines eye color, or a gene that dictates the pigment of your skin. Different forms of a gene are known as alleles, so the gene for eye color has green, blue and brown alleles.

DNA Strands
A DNA strand is made up of thousands upon thousands of genes, and also what is known as junk DNA. This junk DNA does not have a function, or rather, it does not have a function that is currently understood or known of in the scientific community. These DNA strands form a double helix, which is two strands of DNA joined at their complementary bases, in a spiral structure.

Images and animations are courtesy of the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Talking Glossary.

Chromosomes
Chromosomes are tightly wound bundles of DNA strands, that look like two arms joint at the centromere, with the short arm designated “p”, and the long arm designated “q”. Two chromosomes join at the centromere to form a chromosome pair, which structurally resembles an “X”. The chromosomes are found in the nucleus of the cell, from where they replicate to form duplicates of themselves during cell division, or take part in the transcription/translation process whereby proteins are created from the genetic code.

DNA is complex
DNA, even when broken down into its constituent parts is incredibly complex and because of this, errors can easily creep into the code. Genetic disease and cancer typically come about due to these errors in the genome, and are exponentially copied during the copying and division of cells. So, DNA and its complexity are both a blessing and a curse but without it, life as we know it would not be possible.

Helpful DNA-related Resources:

The Future of Genomic Medicine

Medicine has always focused on the treatment of diseases. Scientists have talked about changing this since the Human Genome Project began. Researchers have found that they may be able to predict whether or not a patient will develop a disease based on their genetic map although currently, this is a long way off.

Theoretically, doctors could predict and prevent various diseases before they occur in the future. Genetics are already used in regular medical science and the field of genomic medicine is growing at an unparalleled pace. Enthusiastic commentators have compared it to the development of antibiotics.

Nevertheless, controversy rears its ugly head at every turn. Genomic medicine opens an entire book of ethical quandaries. Technological singularities should cause the human race to come together. In theory, technology is causing the democratization of all areas of our lives.

However, genomic medicine could cause mass discrimination as well. Large groups have been discriminated against because of their political affiliation, race, gender or creed…so why not genetics as well? Discrimination is supposed to be a thing of the past however genomic medicine could cause people to be marginalized based on their genetics.

This is clearly a step backwards. As genomic medicine starts to treat diseases that don’t yet exist, doctors need to exercise caution and restraint in their work. It’s sometimes said that technology is morally neutral. However, what doctors do with technology can have serious moral implications in the years ahead as well.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program

Is a New Form of Life Really So Alien?

The idea of discovering a new form of life has not only excited astronomers and astrobiologists for decades, but also the wider public. The notion that we are the only example of a successful life form in the galaxy has, for many, seemed like an unlikely statistic, as we discover more and more habitable planetary bodies and hear yet more evidence of life’s ability to survive in extreme conditions. A new essay, Read More →

Could ‘Advanced’ Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?

New scientific research (referenced below) raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe. “We would be better off not meeting them,” concludes the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Read More →