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We encoded computer files totalling 739 kilobytes of hard-disk storage and with an estimated Shannon information10 of 5.2 × 106 bits into a DNA code, synthesized this DNA, sequenced it and reconstructed the original files with 100% accuracy. Theoretical analysis indicates that our DNA-based storage scheme could be scaled far beyond current global information volumes and offers a realistic technology for large-scale, long-term and infrequently accessed digital archiving. In fact, current trends in technological advances are reducing DNA synthesis costs at a pace that should make our scheme cost-effective for sub-50-year archiving within a decade."Synthetic double-helix faithfully stores Shakespeare's sonnets" (Thanks, Mike Pescovitz!)
The Double Helix is a famous book. It's also an infamous one. Written by James Watson in 1968, it tells the story of how he and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA. The catch is that Watson chose to write that story in what was, at the time, a damn-near unprecedented way. He didn't write a history. He didn't exactly write an autobiography, either. Instead, The Double Helix is a book about history, told in story form, where everything is seen through the eyes of a single narrator — the 25-year-old James Watson.
He is not the world's most likable narrator. Nor the most reliable one. I mean that in the sense of the "unreliable narrator" from fiction. We see this world through young Watson's eyes, and his perspective isn't always accurate. The story is shaped by his prejudices and his personality, and it can't really be read as THE account of what actually happened. That's a good thing, because the choice of style allowed Watson to really capture the back-room conflict (and cooperation), and the sense of urgency, that drives scientific discovery. It's a bad thing because it's far too easy to forget that The Double Helix has more in common with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood than, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's not a scholarly history. It's more like memoir crossed with narrative non-fiction. You can't walk away from it thinking that Watson's narration represents some kind of objective truth.
The new, annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix — published this month by Simon and Schuster — makes that fact abundantly clear. Full of photographs, letters, handwritten notes, and commentary from other people involved in the history of DNA, this edition gives you glimpses of other perspectives — of a story much bigger than the one told in The Double Helix, itself.
It also made me wonder about James Watson's reaction to documents that completely upend the story as he told it — especially documents relating to Rosalind Franklin, a scientist whose work was instrumental in deciphering DNA's structure and who is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature.
So I asked him about it.
Read the rest
The Curiosity rover can do a lot of things, but nobody is expecting her to find direct evidence of life on Mars. In fact, the hunt for life on the Red Planet has been a pretty stunted one. The last time we really looked was during the Viking missions, which tried to find chemical "footprints" that would exist if there had once been life on Mars, but that could end up on that planet for other reasons, as well. What we got back was a less-than-enthralling "Outlook Hazy. Try Again Later."
Ever since, we've contented ourselves with searching for indirect evidence — assessing the planet for signs that it might once have had the conditions necessary for life to happen. That's important, and it will make direct evidence of life more believable if we ever do find it, but it's not quite the same thing.
But now, DNA sequencing tools have become portable enough (and drilling technology has become powerful enough) that some scientists and Craig Ventner think we could send a probe to Mars which could find buried traces of actual DNA protected in the dirt and sequence that DNA on site.
It's also possible that life hitched a ride between Earth and Mars in their early days. Asteroid impacts have sent about a billion tonnes of rock careering between the two planets, potentially carrying DNA or its building blocks. That could mean that any genetic material on Mars is similar enough to DNA that we have a chance of finding it using standard tests.
Even if we don't, we can set up future sequencers to look for molecules that use alternative sugars or chemical letters in the genetic code. "We're not there yet, but it's not a fundamental limitation," says Chris Carr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who works on the NASA-backed Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes.
A study at Nanjing University in China found that ingested "microRNA" (very small pieces of ribonucleic acid, or RNA) from plants were able to survive digestion and influence the function of human cells.
Food columnist Ari Levaux has a piece digging into the implications, in The Atlantic. The basic idea: if this research stands up to the rigors of scientific scrutiny, it could prove that when we eat food, we consume not just fuel and nutrients, but information that changes us on a cellular level, and influences health.
Monsanto's website states, "There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans." This viewpoint, while good for business, is built on an understanding of genetics circa 1950. It follows what's called the "Central Dogma" (PDF) of genetics, which postulates a one-way chain of command between DNA and the cells DNA governs.
The Central Dogma resembles the process of ordering a pizza. The DNA knows what kind of pizza it wants, and orders it. The RNA is the order slip, which communicates the specifics of the pizza to the cook. The finished and delivered pizza is analogous to the protein that DNA codes for.
We've known for years that the Central Dogma, though basically correct, is overly simplistic. For example: Pieces of microRNA that don't code for anything, pizza or otherwise, can travel among cells and influence their activities in many other ways. So while the DNA is ordering pizza, it's also bombarding the pizzeria with unrelated RNA messages that can cancel a cheese delivery, pay the dishwasher nine million dollars, or email the secret sauce recipe to WikiLeaks.
Monsanto's claim that human toxicology tests are unwarranted is based on the doctrine of "substantial equivalence." This term is used around the world as the basis of regulations designed to facilitate the rapid commercialization of genetically engineered foods, by sparing them from extensive safety testing.
via The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods - The Atlantic. You'll also want to read the actual study, and make up your own mind.
Using all the dog swabs, BioPet would create a doggie database of sorts for the complex. It would compare all those samples to the mysterious doggie-doo. When BioPet identifies the guilty pooch, the owner would pay a $500 fine.DNA Could Solve Doggie-Doo Caper (via Freakonomics Blog)
"We pay all this money, and we're walking around stepping in dog poop," resident Steven Frans told The Sun. "We bring guests over and this is what they're greeted by."
Frans is the board member who proposed the plan, calling it a reasonable and objective way to find the culprit.
(Image: A New Way to Complain About Dog Poop, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from aoifecitywomanchile's photostream)
An undercover officer surreptitiously trailed Lazarus, 49, as she ran errands, waiting until she discarded a plastic utensil or other object with her saliva on it. The DNA in her saliva was compared with evidence collected from the murder scene. The genetic code in the samples matched conclusively, police and prosecutors have said.And this is one of the main reasons that biometric identifiers are so very risky... You can protect the PIN for your debit card by shielding the keypad when you enter it, but how do you keep counterfeiters from getting your DNA for authenticating the debit-card of the future? We throw off fingerprints, DNA, hand-geometry impressions, gaits and other biometrics at a titanic rate, and there's no way to stop, short of spending all your time in a hazmat suit.
(Image: DNA Molecule display, Oxford University, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from net_efekt's photostream)
The highly critical report from the government's advisory body on the development of human genetics is published as the number of innocent people on the database is disclosed to be far higher than previously thought â€‘ nearing 1 million.Police routinely arresting people to get DNA, inquiry claims (Image: DNA Molecule display, Oxford University, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from net_efekt's Flickr stream)
The commission says the policy of routinely adding the DNA profiles of all those arrested has led to a highly disproportionate impact on different ethnic groups and the stigmatisation of young black men, with the danger of their being seen as "an 'alien wedge' of criminality"...
The chairman of the commission, Prof Jonathan Montgomery, said: "It's now become pretty routine to take DNA samples on arrest. So large numbers of people on the DNA database will be there not because they have been convicted, but because they've been arrested."
He said the commission had received evidence from a former police superintendent that it was now the norm to arrest offenders for everything possible. "It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained," said Montgomery, adding that it would be a matter of very great concern if this was now a widespread practice.