A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics discovered a curious fact. They found that over 80 percent of Americans firmly support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA”. The survey also found that approximately the same amount of Americans also support mandatory labels for GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering”.
While this survey’s findings provided comedic fodder for the news cycle, it also illuminated a troubling fact about the country’s apparent state of education regarding scientific fact and DNA knowledge. Undoubtedly, most respondents likely were voicing concerns over genetically-modified organisms (“GMOs”) and their increasing place within the modern food chain.
Despite the ongoing GMO debate and its legitimate concerns, such as greater susceptibility to worldwide crop blights, this recent confusion points to a fundamental misunderstanding of DNA and its increasing implications in everyday society, as business further turns DNA-related technology into commercial products affecting the masses.
To provide a stronger grasp of how important DNA is to everyday life and further expand one’s overall knowledge base, here are a number of interesting facts about DNA and its implications across modern life:
1) Despite the variety of organisms on Earth, each one built from a complex set of instructions, DNA itself is generated by the combination of only four components, the nucleotides adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine. All classes of organisms, be they plant or animal, can all be broken down into these four base nucleotides. All that changes are the specific combinations of the nucleotide pairs themselves.
2) Research has shown that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. When fully broken down, this means that the oldest samples of DNA that could be viably cloned into new, living organisms have a natural limit of 2 million years. This fact rules out the possibility of cloning extinct plants or animals older than this age. As a result, the hope of cloning dinosaurs, a la Jurassic Park, is currently not possible.
3) Approximately 8% of all current human DNA is actually composed of ancient viruses that used to infect human beings in the past. The reason this has transpired is that ancient retroviruses, nearly all of them currently extinct, infected human beings and inserted their own DNA into the host cells’ genome. If these cells included reproductive cells such as sperm or eggs, then the retrovirus DNA would become passed along successive generations.
4) DNA was actually first discovered nearly 150 years ago, however scientists did not understand its function until almost 75 years later. Friedrich Miescher first discovered DNA in 1869 via his research. Unfortunately, scientists at that time, Miescher included, did not understand exactly what it was. It wasn’t until 1943 that subsequent research clarified that DNA stored the genetic material within cells. For the interim years, it was believed that proteins stored the genetic information now associated with DNA.
5) Scientists are now unlocking DNA’s ability to store digital information, due to its nature and structure. In a Harvard University-sponsored experiment, scientists stored 700 terabytes of data onto one gram of DNA. For the sake of comparison, that same amount of information is equivalent to 330 pounds of physical hard drives. That same quantity of data can now be potentially be stored in a medium small enough to fit on a fingertip. Unfortunately, current sequencing methods required to decode the stored data remain costly and time-consuming, limiting practical application at this time.
6) Despite being composed of only four base nucleotides, DNA is an incredibly complex signal chain of information. To put it in perspective, if one were to uncoil DNA’s double helix structure and lay it out in a straight line, it would stretch out for 10 billion miles. In that distance, one could make the trip from Earth to Pluto and back.
7) All non-African humans contain Neanderthal DNA due to periods of human and Neanderthal interbreeding. The human X chromosome has also been determined to have originated from Neanderthals, but only for humans of non-African origin. Given their genes for language, as well as highly developed skills in art and tool craftsmanship, Neanderthals added considerable genetic variability and strength to the human genome.
8) Virtually all cheetahs are genetically identical to one another. While laboratory mice and rats have been subject to consistent interbreeding in order to keep experimental results as uniform as possible, research has found that virtually all cheetahs also possess virtually the same genome despite the species’ large population. Scientists theorize that approximately 100,000 years ago some unknown event reduced the cheetah population down to as little as seven individual animals. The exact cause remains unknown, however the population was able to slowly recover and rebuild throughout the centuries. Unfortunately though, their extreme genetic commonality leaves cheetahs very susceptible to disease.
9) It is quite possible to live with two distinctive sets of DNA. Most humans live and are built from one set of genetic blueprints. With quite a few pregnancies, twins are often formed early on but due to circumstances, one is absorbed by the other early enough without any further complication. In certain cases though, the remaining child, usually unaware he or she had a twin in the womb still possesses the remnants of their twin’s genetic code within them. This condition, known as Chimerism, is often undetected but happens more commonly than people think.
10) DNA research has definitely shown that Viking explorers reached North America centuries before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. DNA testing has proven that four separate families in Iceland possess a specific genetic variant that is only known to exist within Native American and East Asian peoples. Genetic testing has provided substantial proof that at least one Native American woman was taken to Iceland itself, based upon DNA testing which shows contact between both peoples as far back as 1700.
This simple list of facts provides only the tip of the iceberg in terms of DNA’s inherent importance, as well as how it affects the world at large. While the information contained within is significant, DNA can also be a map into worlds long gone. DNA testing provides insight and illumination into past events and populations that would otherwise be unknowable.