Monday, September 14, 2009
5 Things You Didn't Know: DNA
1- The human genome was almost commercialized
Most are not aware, but the project to sequence the human genome (all of the DNA a human possesses) was a vicious race that pitted public interests versus private.
The public arm of the race was lead by the Human Genome Project (HGP), an international consortium of scientists and researchers working at a price tag of a mere $3 billion U.S. The project began in 1990, and was expected to reach completion in 15 years. There were, however, complications.
In 1998, a privately funded quest was launched by J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics. Working on a budget of only $300 million, Celera's effort was projected to proceed faster than the HGP -- a notion that enraged leaders of the public project, especially when Celera’s intentions were made clear. Celera announced that it would seek patent protection on specific genes, and would not permit free distribution of the human genome to public databases. Instead, they planned to harbor a separate database on their private website, and charge for any analyses requested by external researchers.
The announcement by Celera sent leaders of the HGP into a frenzy. With both teams in a bid to win the race, dueling media reports began to emerge. A progress update would be released by one party, and then the claim would be disputed by the other. After several failed partnerships, the two teams managed to release their results almost simultaneously in February of 2000, citing that the race sped up the project, to everyone's benefit.
2- DNA testing is used to authenticate foods like caviar
Who knew that the caviar industry was so ripe with mystery, excitement and illegal activity? It’s likely that most have no idea. The choice delicacy of the affluent, caviar has for years been regulated worldwide by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (C.I.T.E.S.). C.I.T.E.S. has closely monitored stocks of caviar coming from the Caspian Sea -- the body of water responsible for some 90% of the world’s caviar -- in an effort to protect endangered species, particularly sturgeon caviar. As a result, DNA testing has become a staple method of authentication to ensure that incoming caviar is properly labeled and legitimate. However, quite often, testing of the DNA yields an unfortunate result.
Back in 2006, a Toronto company was fined for importing caviar from three rare, protected sturgeon species -- the beluga, sevruga and osetra -- whose caviar can fetch up to $150 per ounce. Such reports are merely the tip of the iceberg for an industry dominated by organized crime. "The appetite of smugglers for profit has the potential to extinguish them [sturgeon] from the Earth," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division in a past interview. Illegal smuggling of caviar is, in fact, so widespread that Environment Canada estimates the black market for caviar to be worth between $200 and $500 million globally in 2005.
3- Full genome DNA testing can be had for as little as $1,000
Have you ever wondered what you looked like on the inside, you know, on a DNA level? Pacific Biosciences, a California biotech company, predicts it will soon be able to sequence an entire human gene map in just four minutes -- and only for a cool grand.
Now, to some of you, $1,000 is a lot of money, but just think about the big picture. Pacific Biosciences is offering a service that took the Human Genome Project almost 10 years and $3 billion to achieve -- and now it’s available in four minutes and for far less! The ramifications are truly remarkable, establishing a new precedent in personal genomics. In January 2008, Knome and the Beijing Genetics Institute (BGI) announced that they would sequence entire genomes for $350,000. And if you think that’s expensive, an anonymous Chinese citizen paid $1.3 million to have their genome sequenced by BGI in 2007. Talk about a dynamic market flux.
So, what’s the point? Paying such ludicrous prices to have your genome sequenced is kind of silly at this time as most researchers don’t even know where to begin when looking for genes that cause disease. Sure, some hazardous genes have been identified, but sifting through the entire genome to get a detailed prediction is like finding a needle in a haystack.
4- The first-ever DNA evidence cleared a murder suspect
In 1983 and 1986 two schoolgirls were found raped and murdered in the small town of Narborough, Leicestershire, sparking a murder hunt that led to the conviction of local man Colin Pitchfork -- but not before police arrested and nearly convicted their prime suspect, an unnamed local boy.
Apparently, the young boy knew physical details about one of the bodies and actually confessed to one of the murders. Convinced that the boy had actually committed both crimes, officers sought further confirmation. Using a crude DNA extraction technique, Dr. Peter Gill analyzed semen samples from the victims and found that they did not match the DNA of the young boy. The boy thus became the first ever suspect exonerated on DNA evidence.
Amazingly, police then led the world’s first DNA intelligence-led screen and sampled blood from literally all the men in three surrounding villages. However, after 5,000 samples, no match was found -- the murderer had pulled the old switcheroo. A friend of the murderer was overheard some time later talking about how he had switched the blood sample of Colin Pitchfork’s with his own. Mr Pitchfork, a local baker, was soon arrested and sentenced to life in prison for double homicide.
Since this historic case, DNA evidence has become a primary tool in numerous crime convictions, providing a level of confidence unparalleled: The odds that an individual with a matching DNA profile was selected by chance alone is about one in one billion. There’s no arguing that.
5- DNA says Genghis Khan was a prolific lover
Ghengis Khan, one of the most fearless warriors, was both ruler and emperor of the Mongol empire. However, according to recent DNA evidence, it is also very likely that he helped populate his empire.
In 2003, an international group of 23 geneticists published results of a study that examined the Y chromosomes of 2,123 men from across Asia. The study found that nearly 8% of the men living in the region of the former Mongol empire carried nearly identical Y-chromosomes. The Y chromosome is passed down from father to son to grandson, and so on. Extrapolating the data a bit further, the researchers estimated that nearly 16 million descendants carried similar Y chromosomes.
While there are various explanations as to how this phenomenon could have arisen, the authors attribute the most likely scenario to the prolific seed-sowing of none other than Ghengis Khan. Khan’s empire spanned across most of Asia, he frequently slaughtered all who opposed him, thus limiting genetic variation. Khan often got the first pick of women whom he frequently raped, and some of Khan’s sons were noted as having as many as 40 children. Putting all the evidence together, one can’t help but consider Genghis Khan as the most prolific man history has ever known -- except for maybe Jesus, whose DNA was recently unearthed according to a controversial documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus -- but that’s an entirely different story.
Because DNA is the building block of all living organisms, and with our increasing understanding of disease we are entering a new genetic era where testing of our DNA will become as commonplace as turning your head and coughing.
Like a first love, DNA will attract infatuation that will burn through the ages -- at least for science buffs. As long as humankind quests to further human health, we will tinker with DNA. Whether the public remains interested depends on how far we choose to manipulate DNA. With human cloning and other controversial bombshells waiting just around the corner, expect DNA to remain in the public eye for decades to come.