Have you ever heard of the expression ‘it’s in your genes’? You’ve more than likely heard someone talk about DNA or perhaps you even know a little bit about it yourself. But what exactly is it? What does DNA stand for? How important is it? And why are medical researchers always talking about it?
To begin with, let’s try and put DNA into perspective. It’s small. Very small. A human hair is about 1 hundred thousand nanometers in diameter. A molecule of DNA is just 2 nanometers across.
DNA is located inside the nucleus of the cell. As we mentioned previously, the nucleus of the cell is essentially its brain. It controls cell division, protein production, cell growth and the development of that cell into a specific tissue (for example muscle tissue or stomach tissue). If something goes wrong with the nucleus, the whole cell is in trouble. So what is DNA’s role in the nucleus?
The main role of DNA is the long-term storage of information. You can compare it to a set of instructions that tell the cell what to make, for example, a specific type of protein. Specific segments of DNA are called genes. These genes are responsible for some of the traits you can inherit from your parents. An example is the brown-eyed gene. This is a specific protein that’s made using the instructions from DNA. If this protein doesn’t get made (because you don’t have the brown eyed gene), you have no or little pigment and you have blue eyes. A varying amount of this protein can give you hazel or green eyes.
So what does DNA stand for and what is it made of? DNA stands for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid and it’s made of 4 parts called nucleobases. They can be abbreviated to A, T, C & G. These bases bond together in a very specific way, which gives DNA its curled look.
So why is DNA so important? We now know that it plays a key role in making ‘you’, you. Which is why law enforcement can often use it to identify people.
We also know that no DNA means no proteins and a body without proteins wouldn’t be able to survive. Proteins are essential for muscle contractions, immunity, digestion, hormone production, energy production and even getting oxygen into your blood!
Finally, why are medical researchers always talking about DNA? Many diseases are actually caused when DNA goes wrong. An example is Down syndrome. Normally you inherit 1 gene from 1 parent – so you end up with 2 genes. Downs is caused by having an extra chromosome – which means that they have 3 copies of a specific gene rather than the normal 2. Researchers are looking at genetic modification, where they could potentially stop genetic diseases from occurring, or fix them before birth. Another example of a genetic disease is Cystic Fibrosis. This disease causes severe breathing difficulties, as a very important protein can’t be made due a DNA mutation. Hopefully, at some point in the future, doctors will have created cures for genetically inherited diseases.
This week’s advice: Try to appreciate the might of such a small molecule. DNA may be tiny, but it really is the building block of life.
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