NIH celebrates discovery of double-helix as well as the completion of the human genome project
The double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid’s (DNA) is one of the most wellknown hallmarks of modern science, particularly among the biological sciences. On April 25, 1953, the structure of DNA was revealed to the public at large in the journal “Nature” with a paper titled “A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” by the equally famous James Watson and Francis Crick. DNA has now become a veritable icon: one of the most important molecules known to all the sciences, informing us of the genes that make each species their own. It is within DNA that each living organism is “coded” for, and it is within DNA that we may find predispositions for diseases and also find ways to manipulate those diseases out of existence. It is through the manipulation of DNA that humans have taken hold of evolution more so than ever before, particularly among crops, producing crops that are larger, healthier, and vitaminenriched.
April 25 marked National DNA Day, a day sponsored by the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Human Genome Research Institute. According to the website, the overall goal is to celebrate genomics through awareness: Students, teachers and the public could learn more about genetics and genomics. Specifically, “the day commemorates the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003, and the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953.”
As part of the educative celebrations, Reddit, an incredibly popular hub of internet activity and discussion, hosted a week-long “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) series that can be found on reddit.com/r/science. Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health and former U.S. leader of the human genome project, was present for an AMA on the actual DNA day. One of the top-voted questions was asked by user fishwithfeet, asking. “What do you see as the future for public access to not just data, but published, peer reviewed papers?”
Collins succinctly responded by noting that an increasing number of journals are making peer-reviewed papers freely available to the public without charge. As is an increasing issue, much of the science published in the U.S. must first go through a peer-reviewed journal where the articles are edited freely by colleague scientists. The journals then may charge anywhere from $30 to $90 for access to the specific paper, despite the research being funded largely by taxes (the public – you and me). The NIH’s research, currently, must be freely available in PubMed within 12 months of publication in a journal, and, according to Collins, they are working on making it effective immediately.
Other festivities included the NIH sponsoring renown scientist Dr. Eric P. Spana with a talk entitled “Harry Potter and the Genetic of Wizarding” and tweeting with the hashtag #DNADay16 to the account @ DNAday.
If any molecule deserves to be celebrated, DNA is the one. Among the burgeoning fields of biotechnology, DNA may serve as an immensely effective and long-term solution to data storage. Rather than encoding the information as a 1 or 0, it is encoded as an A, T, G, or C (the base pairs that make up DNA). For example, an external hard drive may be the size of a large textbook, store about 5 terabytes of data, and last perhaps 50 years. In contrast, an ounce of DNA (28 grams) would fit in the size of a penny and be able to store 300,000 terabytes of memory and, under proper conditions, survive up to a million years.
Already in 2012, Harvard scientists managed to store 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA. Now, on April 5, 2016, Technicolor Labs successfully reported the encoding of the silent French movie “A Trip to the Moon,” one million times in a small vial of DNA. Clearly, the potential uses of DNA are expanding and may become a very possible form of data storage within the next decade.
CRISPR-Cas9 geneediting technologies are also making waves among research labs, giving scientists today unprecedented opportunities to target highly selective genes or areas in the genome for manipulation. They may be able to disable defunct genes and even insert genes that “work properly” in their place. This may lead to novel genetic therapeutic approaches to certain genetic disorders when coupled with viral vector technologies.
With that, happy national DNA day!
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