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Most Of Our DNA Might Not Do Anything At All, Here’s Why

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DNAYou probably learned, as I did, that who and what we are as humans and as individuals depends on our DNA. I remember back in school being more interested in the double helix shape than about what DNA actually does, but I was young and foolish, and now I know better. DNA is pretty darn important…or at least, I thought I knew that. A controversial new study from the University of Oxford Wellcome Trust Centre indicates that perhaps as little as 8.2% of our DNA actually does something important.

Scientists have long known about “junk DNA,” thought to do nothing more than take up space. Even though scientists generally believed that this was really just clutter, many thought it still had to do something, even if we didn’t yet know what it was. One recent theory is that it might explain why humans still have an old Neanderthal virus kicking around in their genes.

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UK Looks To Approve Process By Which Kids Have Three Biological Parents

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egg-selection-ivfWe’ve come a long way when it comes to redefining what it means to be a family. I mean, remember when My Two Dads seemed like a strange scenario? Not anymore. Given what scientists can do with DNA, the evolution of the family unit is just the tip of the iceberg. Even babies who were born as a result of infertility treatments or who were conceived in test tubes aren’t that unusual anymore. Soon, kids who have DNA from three people won’t be all that unusual either. Right now, there are somewhere between 30-50 people in the world who were made from the DNA of three different individuals.

Using mitochondria (the energy-producing bits of the cell) is part of an infertility treatment called cytoplasmic transfer. The process has been around for over 15 years and was developed by an embryologist at New Jersey’s St. Barnabus Institute. The pioneering doctor, Jacques Cohen, figured that some infertility was caused by malfunctions in the cytoplasm, which contains a cell’s nucleus and mitochondria. There was a good chance the problem was with the mitochondria itself, so he came up with the technique of implanting mitochondria from a female donor into the would-be mother’s egg, which he then fertilized with the would-be father’s sperm. Thus, some of the female donor’s DNA ends up in the embryo, and technically, the child has parts from three different people.

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DNA Analysis Casts Even More Doubt On The Existence Of Bigfoot

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bigfootNever say die, Bigfoot believers! People will try to use this crazy thing called science to disprove the existence of the mythical beast, but what do they know? I’m just telling you about this latest bit of information so you can come up with a plausible explanation that supports the continued belief in Bigfoot, as well as the Loch Ness Monster, and UFOs. Here’s what you’re contending with now: DNA analysis reveals yeti hair samples to have come from dogs, horses, bears, and other common animals.

An international team of scientists collaborated to form the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project for the purposes of gathering and analyzing all of the samples of what could potentially be Bigfoot hair. The samples were collected over the past 50 years by hikers, hunters, and other folks who might have sighted the big B. The scientists focused on 36 samples of an initial group of 57, screening out some that weren’t hair and being sure to include ones with origins that matched other sightings. They extracted viable DNA from 30 of the 36, and sequenced a short segment, which allowed them to identify genus, but not differentiate between similar species (i.e., dogs and coyotes).

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The Structure Of DNA Was Discovered In 1953: Today In Science & Science Fiction

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DNAOn this day in 1953, a pair of men walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, and one of them declared he and his compatriot had “discovered the secret of life.” Certainly not the first time an outlandish boast has been the subject of barroom conversation, but these guys had the goods to back it up. Their names were James D. Watson and Frances H.C. Crick, and they had just made a discovery science had been chasing for some time time: they’d determined the structure of DNA.

DNA had actually been discovered back in 1869, but nearly a century later scientists were still speculating about its structure and how it worked. On February 28, 1953, Watson and Crick cracked the case, and DNA’s unmistakable double-helix structure was revealed: “a spiral of two DNA strands, each containing a long chain of monomer nucleotides, wound around each other.” Their discovery also revealed how genetic instructions were carried from one generation to the next, with the DNA splitting into two individual strands, each of which then became a new double helix.

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Scientists Extract Justinian Plague DNA From An Old Tooth

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toothHaving been felled this week by the indescribably nasty Norovirus, I’m grateful for two things: first, that I wasn’t on a cruise ship, and second, that it wasn’t the plague (even though it felt like it at times). When I returned to the internets, a story about scientists bringing back an ancient plague from an old tooth caught my eye.

About 1,500 years ago, something even more gnarly than Norovirus ripped through the Roman Empire — nope, not the Pope, but the Justinian Plague, which struck the region in 541 AD, wiping out about 25% of Emperor Justinian’s constituency. Apparently the Emperor himself got sick, but he managed to get better, probably because his health insurance plan was better than everyone else’s. Historians think that the Justinian plaque was a major contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Empire, as estimates suggest that it might have killed up to 50 million people in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Good times!

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Genomic Editing Therapies Under Development

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genome_editingI love that I live in a hotbed of technology. Boston’s crammed with hospitals, robotics companies, 3-D printing companies, and a thriving bio-tech industry. I’m frequently inspired by what the science and tech folks around here are up to, and I hope that I glean some of that magic by osmosis. Sometimes, though, I read about a plan or device that gives me pause and makes me think I may not want to be so nearby. Editas Medicine’s recent press release detailing their plans to embark on a new phase of genome-editing treatments is one such announcement.

Editas is a Cambridge-based biotech firm that is attempting to design new genetic treatments for diseases. While that’s a goal I certainly support, my reservations stem from how they intend to do this. Gene therapy has been around for a little while, but Editas wants to revolutionize it — they believe they’ve come up with a new method for editing genomes that involves changing the genome’s DNA sequence. According to Editas, the new genome-editing system will allow them to treat diseases for which we have no current treatments.