As one of the most powerful substances in the world, DNA is a vast repository of information. And by cracking the “life code” humans have realized that it can provide us with invaluable knowledge.
Want to know your family tree? Prove parentage? Find the criminal? Avoid health problems? It may look like a series of unrelated challenges, but they have one thing in common – they can all be accomplished by analyzing DNA. So let us take a closer look at everything a DNA can tell us!
When sci-fi becomes reality
TV shows such as CSI rely on DNA testing for forensic purposes, mostly to identify victims and criminals. And it's no science fiction! In a cold, dry and dark place, DNA can remain intact for thousands of years, helping us solve both modern and ancient crimes and mysteries. Investigators use a process called DNA profiling to determine an individual's unique DNA characteristics. They use biological samples, mostly blood, semen, saliva or hair, from which DNA is extracted.
So how can we tell from DNA if the suspect and the criminal are one and the same? Special enzymes called restriction endonucleases cut up the DNA, but only when they come across a specific sequence. And because DNA varies from person to person, so does the length of the cut pieces. By combining several of these variable locations in the genome, scientists can say with very high confidence that the DNA profiles in question are a match.
Expand your family and discover your ethnic mix
Have you always wanted a bigger family? Genetic testing can help you find your long lost relatives and learn about your ancestors! A fairly affordable genetic ancestry testing builds up your family tree and reveals your ethnicity. Such tests compare your DNA to the genetic material of others around the world, and by detecting similarities, they can find your relatives.
There are three types of genetic testing used for genealogy:
- the Y-chromosome testing (showing only direct paternal lineage because it is present solely in males),
- mitochondrial DNA testing (showing only direct maternal lineage because it is almost exclusively inherited from the mother),
- and single nucleotide polymorphism testing (providing an estimate of the person's ethnic background by analyzing large numbers of variations across the entire genome).
It is worth noting that genetic ancestry testing has limitations, mostly because it compares an individual's test results to different databases, so the results may vary from provider to provider.
Move over USB, here comes DNA
As incredible as it might sound, scientists are trying to use DNA as the medium for storing information. Even Richard Dawkins, the author of the acclaimed novel The Selfish Gene, was fascinated by the fact that “genetics is digital.” He said that a gene is a long sequence of coded letters, just like computer information.
Just recently a bioengineer and a geneticist from Harvard’s Wyss Institute have successfully stored staggering 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA. They said that they treated DNA just like another digital storage device with each of the nucleotide bases representing a binary value (T and G = 1, A and C = 0). Reading this data stored in DNA is simple – first, we sequence it just like a genome and then convert the bases back into binary values.
There are three excellent reasons scientists are looking at DNA as the next incarnation of the USB disk: it is so dense that it enables storing large quantities of data on a small space, it is volumetric rather than planar, and is so stable that it can survive without any special environmental conditions.
As Dawkins put it, modern biology really is becoming a branch of information technology!
See into the future
Knowing your baby is healthy is the most valuable information that future parents can learn. Sometimes traditional methods such as a nuchal scan are not definitive enough, or parents want to be absolutely sure. A NIPT (non-invasive prenatal test) DNA test such as NIFTY (non-invasive fetal trisomy test) can help them see if their baby is developing normally without having to resort to potentially dangerous procedures. It can be used from as early as week 10 of pregnancy and is 99% accurate.
Because the mother's blood contains the so-called cell-free DNA fragments of her baby, a simple blood sample is enough to detect chromosomal abnormalities, especially the three most common trisomy conditions present at birth (Down, Edwards and Patau Syndrome). It can also reveal the baby’s gender! Due to their safety, ease of use and accuracy, NIPTs has become a must for every expecting parent.
Live long and prosper
When gene testing advanced to the point to become available to the broader public, it became clear that it can be used to directly improve our lives. Since our DNA contains the instructions for every part of our body, it can show us potential health risks, helping us maintain optimal health and wellbeing. Personal DNA analysis analyzes more than 100 selected sites (loci) of the DNA where mutations might occur. Mutations affect the functioning of proteins which are responsible for carrying out the instructions written in our genes.
The type of mutation at this locus of DNA is called the genotype, and various genotypes are one of the most important factors which make people different.
Genetic testing can tell you if you are at risk of being obese, having high cholesterol, lacking specific nutrients. By analyzing your affinity for coffee and sleeping, risk of soft tissue injury, response to stress and many other traits, it can also help you adapt your physical activities and lifestyle.
Humanity has just started cracking the life code that is DNA, and judging by how significant improvements the discoveries have already brought, information coded in our DNA will continue to impact our lives in the future.