Happy DNA Day!

dna_cancerThough I am a week late in expressing this sentiment, I feel I must acknowledge this rather interesting of events. As it stands, this past April 22nd was the sixty-first anniversary of the molecular structure of DNA being revealed to the world. What began as a publication in the magazine Nature has now become emblematic of the programming language of life, and our understanding of DNA has grown by leaps and bounds over the past six decades.

To commemorate such an important landmark in the history of humanity, a look back at some of the more recent developments in the field of genetic research would seem to be in order. For example, it was on April 22nd of this year that a rather interesting study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead on this study was none other than Svante Pääbo – the world’s foremost expert in Neanderthal genetics.

humanEvolutionBased on the genomes of three neanderthals that were found in disparate locations in Eurasia, Pääbo and his colleagues have concluded that the genetic diversity in Neanderthals is significantly less when compared to present-day Homo sapiens. It also appears as if the Neanderthal populations were relatively isolated and tiny, so gene flow was extremely limited for these groups. In short, our homonid cousins didn’t get around and interbreed quite as much as we’ve done, which may shed some light on their disappearance.

On the very same day, an article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that proposed that skin cancer from the sun’s damaging UV rays was actually a driving force in the national selection for dark skin in early humans. In the article, Mel Greaves delivers a compelling argument that the deadliness of skin cancer in young albino children in Africa and Central America demonstrates just how vital it was for early humans to develop dark skin.

GenoChipAnd on April 25th, National Geographic and Family Tree DNA teamed up to announce the release of a brand new version of the human Y-DNA tree. This new tree of Y chromosome mutations has over 1,200 branches — almost double the number of branches that the Genographic Project was displaying before. With this much refinement, it’s now even easier to track the historical migrations of your distant ancestors.

To celebrate this monumental roll-out, Family Tree DNA offered a 20% discount on the 37-marker Y-DNA test and all individual Y-DNA SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) tests, an offer which sadly expired on April 27th. However, interested parties can still have this cutting-edge anthropological genetic test performed for $200. And it’s something to keep in mind for next year certainly. What better way to celebrate DNA day than to have a full genetic profile of yourself made?

encodeAnd let’s not forget, 2012 was also the year that the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Consortium – an international collaboration of research groups funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) – released the world’s most complete report on the human genome to date. Unlike the Human Genome Project, which released the first catalog of human DNA back in 2003, ENCODE was not only able to catalog the human genome’s various parts, but also what those components actually do.

Among the initiative’s many findings was that so-called “junk DNA” – outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences – are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height. As I’ve said before, these findings will go a long way towards developing gene therapy, biotechnology that seeks to create artificial DNA and self-assembling structures, and even cloning.

Tree-600x405Yes, it’s an exciting time for the field of DNA research, and not just because of the many doors its likely to open. Beyond medical and bioresearch, it helps us to understand of ourselves as a species, our collective origins, and may perhaps help us to see just how interconnected we all truly are. For centuries now, a great many evils and prejudices have been committed in the name of “racial superiority” or racial differences.

Armed with this new knowledge, we might just come to realize that this great organism known as humanity is all fruit of the same tree.

Sources: extremetech.com, genome.ucsc.edu, newswatch.nationalgeographic.com

7 thoughts on “Happy DNA Day!

  1. Great post. I was going to post a similar story but decided all my YEC (young evangelical christian) trolls would loose their minds I went instead with the X/Y chromosome first emerging 180 million years ago 🙂

  2. My friend did that thing where you buy a kit and take a sample of your dna to send in. You get back a report on your personal dna history. She got the results back this week and has 3% Neanderthal dna, which is higher than average. The average was between 1.4 and 2.?. I want to say 2.3 but I’m not sure that is correct. The average being from one of the many articles I read last month and not something stated in her results.

    1. My father had the same. Not sure about his Neanderthal ancestry, but I know we’ve got some that goes pretty far into east Eurasia, which we believe confirms our “Black Irish” theory about having Iroquois ancestry. After all, it was the people of east Eurasia/Siberia that migrated to North America some 15,000 years ago, right?

      1. I don’t know, when I hear the term ‘Black Irish’ I usually hear it referencing the black-haired, blue-eyed strain of the Irish rather than the more common red or red/blonde, green-eyed types. Although I have known a few people who had a parent tell them they were black Irish to try to hide the fact they were actually part Cherokee.

      2. Well that’s the idea behind the term. Originally, it referred to the Irish who were descended from those who intermarried with the Spanish who landed on the south shores after the Spanish Armada was defeated. But in the context of Southern Ontario, it referred to the Irish immigrants who intermarried with the local Iroquois population. Their descendents often chose to hide this fact by pretending to be Black Irish in the other sense.

      3. Didn’t they disprove the Spanish origin? There were to many darker Irish that predated the Spanish Armada. The strain had been around much longer.

        And sometimes, some Native American would also pass as Hispanic, because there are some areas that the stigma against Native Americans was worse than the stigma against Hispanics. I did a college paper on the Native Americans ‘passing’ in literature in my Native American lit class one year.

      4. I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I do imagine it was just a popular myth, designed to explain genetic variance amongst a people, and hence easily disproven. After all, there’s no such thing as genetic uniformity and in the past, people tended to assume that every nation was its own “racial” group with its own intrinsic characteristics. Example, the notion of Aryanism – seriously, how stupid was that?

        And that sounds like an interesting paper. Maybe some day you’ll let me read it? 🙂

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