- How’s the World Celebrating?
- My Top 3 “Likes” for 2014 DNA Day
- Where’s the Love for RNA Day?
The Why, What and Where of DNA Day
DNA Day is celebrated on April 25 and commemorates the day in 1953 when James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and colleagues published papers in Nature on the double-helix structure of DNA. Furthermore, on that day in 2003 it was declared that the Human Genome Project was nearly 100% complete. “The remaining tiny gaps are considered too costly to fill,” according to BBC News, this due to technical issues—hence the now popular term “accessible genome”.
In the USA, DNA Day was first celebrated on April 25, 2003 by proclamation of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. However, they only declared a one-time celebration. Every year from 2003 onward, annual DNA Day celebrations have been organized by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). April 25 has since been declared “International DNA Day” and “World DNA Day” by several groups.
Researching DNA Day 2014 for this post revealed the following sampling of major international conferences, country-centric activities, local happenings, and social media—all of which struck me as a remarkable testament that elucidation of the structure and role of DNA has unquestionably had a profound influence on science and society.
The 5th World DNA and Genome Day will be held during April 25-29, 2014 in Dalian, China. Its theme is World’s Dream of Bio-Knowledge Economy. This event aims to promote life science and biotech development, and accelerate international education and scientific information exchange in China. Eleven Nobel Laureates representing various disciplines and countries are showcased in a forum that will undoubtedly provide stimulating discussion. In addition, there will be eight concurrent tracks said to cover “major hot fields” in genetics and genomics.
The NHGRI website for National DNA Day enthusiastically proclaims it as “a unique day when students, teachers and the public can learn more about genetics and genomics! Featured are an online chatroom (with transcripts back to 2005), various educational webcasts and podcasts, loads of great teaching tools for all levels, and even ambassadors—NHGRI researchers, trainees, and other staff who present current topics in genetics, the work they do, as well as career options in the field to high school audiences. As a former teacher—and continuing tax payer—it’s gratifying to see all these educational resources and outreach!
The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) held its 9th Annual DNA Day Essay Contest for students in grades 9-12, in parallel with the same contest sponsored by the European Society of Human Genetics. Cash prizes to students—and teaching material grants to their teachers—are awarded to winning essays that address the “2014 Question” quoted as follows:
Complex traits, such as blood pressure, height, cardiovascular disease, or autism, are the combined result of multiple genes and the environment. For ONE complex human trait of your choosing, identify and explain the contributions of at least one genetic factor AND one environmental factor. How does this interplay lead to a phenotype? Keep in mind that the environment may include nutrition, psychological elements, and other non-genetic factors. If the molecular or biological basis of the interaction between the genetic and environmental factors is known, be sure to discuss it. If not, discuss the gaps in our knowledge of how those factors influence your chosen trait.
I don’t know what life-sciences education you received in grades 9-12, but mine were limited to dissecting a smelly, formaldehyde-laced worm and starfish, and definitely not genetic factors and phenotype! Thanks to the “DNA Revolution,” teaching introductory genetics has markedly progressed!
The pervasiveness of the ‘DNA Revolution’ extends to social media as well. National DNA Day has its own Facebook page chock full of all sorts of interesting and informative links. Back in January of this year there were already 13,000 “likes” and 250 “talking about this”. I found these two items to be interesting enough to read more about them.
Something that smells wonderful to you could be offensive to your friend, but why this is so has been a mystery. The answer could lie in your genetic makeup, says a research team from Duke University. Their findings, published in the early online edition of Nature Neuroscience, reveal that a difference at the smallest level of DNA — one amino acid on one gene — determines whether or not you like a smell.
Behavior can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory, animal studies suggest. Experiments showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations. A Nature Neuroscience study shows mice trained to avoid a smell passed their aversion on to their “grandchildren.”
My Top 3 “Likes” for DNA Day this Year
Reflecting on DNA Day 2014 led me to musing over which DNA-related topics were especially noteworthy for this post. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve narrowed it down to my Top 3 “Likes” à la Facebook jargon. I was going to reveal these in beauty pageant manner going from runners-up to the winner, but decided that they are completely different and each a winner in a unique way.
I’m admittedly biased about DNA synthesis, which I’ve done for many years, so I’ll start with the next-generation 1536-well oligonucleotide synthesizer with on-the-fly dispenser reported by a team led by Prof. Ronald Davis at the Stanford University’s Genome Technology Center. While this is a “must read” for synthetic oligonucleotide aficionados, the following snippets are significant “punch lines”—especially regarding throughput, scale, and cost that collectively drive applications such as the emerging field of synthetic biology.
- Produces 1536 samples in a single run using a multi-well filtered titer plate, with the potential to synthesize up to 3456 samples per plate, using an open-well system where spent reagents are drained to waste under vacuum.
- During synthesis, reagents are delivered on-the-fly to each micro-titer well at volumes ≤ 5μl with plate speeds up to 150 mm/s [that’s fast!].
- Using gas-phase cleavage and deprotection, a full plate of 1536 60-mers may be processed with same-day turnaround with an average yield per well at 3.5 nmol. Final product at only $0.00277/base [that’s cheap!] is eluted into a low-volume collection plate for immediate use in downstream applications via robotics.
- Crude oligonucleotide quality is comparable to that of commercial synthesis instrumentation, with an error rate of 1.53/717 bases. Furthermore, mass spectral analysis on strands synthesized up to 80 bases showed high purity with an average coupling efficiency of 99.5%.
Synthetic biology is the segue into my next “like” that is somewhat controversial, namely Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYbio), which is explained at the DIYbio organization’s website where various activities are accessed—and information is available about the DIYbio logo & “DIYbio revolution” shown below. The website provides links to global discussions, local groups and events, the DIYbio blog, “ask a biosafety expert your safety question”, and subscribe to a quarterly “postcard update”.
An Institution for the Do-It-Yourself Biologist
While this “democratization” of biology is a fascinating “grassroots movement”, a GenomeWeb article reported that some think “it is enabling weekend bioterrorists, disaffected teens, and inventive supervillains to use synthetic biology tools to whip up recipes of synthetic super viruses as easy as grandma’s ragout sauce. It’s only a matter of time until this is the reality, isn’t it?”
Probably not, according to a new report called “Seven Myths and Realities about Do-It-Yourself Biology.” Most of the fears about DIYbio are based on a “miscomprehension about the community’s ability to wield and manipulate life,” says the survey, which was conducted by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.
- The survey of 305 DIYers found that many of them work in multiple spaces, with 46 percent working at a community lab, 35 percent at hackerspaces, 28 percent at academic, corporate, or government labs, and 26 percent at home.
- This finding goes against the ‘myth’ that most DIYers work anonymously and in solitude. The survey found that only 8 percent of respondents work exclusively at home labs.
- The project says it is a myth that DIYers are capable of unleashing a deadly epidemic.
- “The community survey suggests that, far from developing novel pathogens, which would require the skill set of a seasoned virologist and access to pathogens, most DIYers are still learning basic biotechnology,” it says.
- DIYers also are not averse to oversight or ethical standards, the survey found. So far, they have largely been left out of conversations about government oversight concerning things like dangerous pathogens, though they do lack a formalized checking system. However, the survey found, in part because most of them work in shared spaces, there are informal checks that exclude the use of animals or pathogens.
- Lastly, group labs are not necessarily going to become havens for bioterrorists, the report says, as DIY community labs have strict rules about access. At Brooklyn’s Genspace, for example, lab community directors evaluate new members and project safety, and consult with a safety committee.
- The Synthetic Biology Project report also lays out several policy proposals and recommendations for ways to nurture DIYbio and to keep it safe. Education programs should be fostered, academic and corporate partners should get engaged, benchmarks and risk limits should be set, and governments should fund networks of community labs, the report says.
Last but not least of my top 3 Likes, is Illumina’s recent announcement of achieving the $1,000 Genome! As noted in my March 31st post, this truly amazing milestone—albeit with some cost caveats—has been realized some 12 years after Craig Venter convened and moderated a diverse panel of experts to discuss The Future of Sequencing: Advancing Towards the $1,000 Genome as a ‘hot topic’ at the 14th International Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference (GSAC 14) in Boston on Oct 2nd 2002. The pre-conference press release presciently added that “the panel will explore new DNA sequencing technologies that have the potential to change the face of genomics over the next few years.” Indeed it has, and getting there has provided very powerful DNA sequencing tools that transformed life science, and enabled a new era of personalized medicine.
Congratulations to everyone who contributed in some way to make this happen!
Where’s the Love for RNA Day?
While writing this post, it struck me that RNA should get its day, too! Here’s why:
While DNA encodes the “blueprint” for life, its transcription into messenger RNA (mRNA) literally translates this blueprint into proteins and, ultimately, all living organisms. But mRNA and other requisite RNAs, such as ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and transfer RNA (tRNA), are only part of the story of life. The existence and critical roles for a host of additional classes of RNA, namely short and long non-coding RNA, are now recognized to be critical. A 2014 review in Nature puts it this way:
The importance of the non-coding transcriptome has become increasingly clear in recent years—comparative genomic analysis has demonstrated a significant difference in genome utilization among species (for example, the protein-coding genome constitutes almost the entire genome of unicellular yeast, but only 2% of mammalian genomes). These observations suggest that the non-coding transcriptome is of crucial importance in determining the greater complexity of higher eukaryotes and in disease pathogenesis. Functionalizing the non-coding space will undoubtedly lead to important insight about basic physiology and disease progression.
DNA and RNA are wonderfully intertwined in the molecular basis of life, why shouldn’t RNA have its day like DNA? Any suggested dates for RNA Day? Let’s start the celebration!
Your comments about this or anything else in this post are welcomed.