The Biological iPhone

Did you know that DNA, when it is being copied, can spin at speeds of 10,000 revolutions per minute?

The DNA in the nucleus of a human cell packs over 3 gigabytes of data, all on a “drive” so small a powerful microscope is needed to see it. However, if you unraveled the threads of these fascinating spiral, twisted structures and stretched them out, they’d be some six feet long. And that’s just for a single cell.

The next Steve Jobs…might be tinkering…with DNA molecules, instead of circuit boards.

The typical person is walking around with some 10 trillion human cells making up his or her body. If we would stretch out all of that nuclear DNA end to end, from each and every cell, it would be enough to cover the distance to the moon and back tens of thousands of times.

DNA is amazing stuff. It’s also a surprisingly durable molecule. It’s been used to clear innocent people of criminal charges years after incarceration. We can still sometimes read information encoded in fragments of DNA molecules tens of thousands of years old, while, at the same time, we might sit and fret whether or not our computer drive will survive the year without crashing and losing its data.

DNA’s also tough in other ways, such that nanoresearchers and computer scientists are using it to build 3-D structures and possible biology-based computers in the future.

The future of computing might not belong to hardware and software, but to wetware — biologically derived computing machines. The “iPhone 20” years from now might be based more on biological technology than the silicon we’ve been working with for the past 50 years. The next Steve Jobs, in fact, might be tinkering in his parents’ garage right now with DNA molecules, instead of circuit boards.

We’ve come a long way since Watson and Crick first described the structure of our DNA in 1953. But there’s still so much to learn about the DNA present in your cells. When we first started to read the human genome — the actual data written on those amazing molecules — it was a real head scratcher in some ways.

The vast majority of the code appeared to serve no purpose whatsoever; 98% of it, in fact, doesn’t appear to contain code for manufacturing protein — the building blocks of cells — what was long considered to be the primary function of genomic data.

This noncoding DNA was, in fact, considered “junk,” and the term “junk DNA” entered the genetics vocabulary. But maintaining a huge database carries considerable costs. It needs to be maintained and protected from data corruption. Whenever it is replicated, it requires a longer period of time and more proteins to build a fresh copy than if a DNA were smaller. This doesn’t fit too well with the tendency of biological systems toward efficiency. What’s not needed is usually discarded eventually, which is why we have animals that have lost their sense of sight from spending many generations living in caves.

So clearly, something was going on with this “junk DNA” we didn’t yet fully understand. We are already learning, for example, that many of the noncoding regions exert a regulatory role on the ones that actually code for proteins.

A recent discovery by researchers at the University of Washington, however, points to DNA possibly doing more things in ways we haven’t realized.

According to Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos at the university, there are actually two codes written in a DNA strand. The first one science is already very familiar with. It uses an alphabet of 64 letters, written in units called codons, each of which is made up of three of the four nucleotides that make up DNA.

According to Stamatoyannopoulos, however, there appears to be a dual meaning to some codons, so that they actually present a second piece of genetic data. He calls these sequences duons and believes they may help regulate the activity of genes.

“The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously.”

This discovery might help in future medical research, since the regulation and control of protein production within cells can be related to disease.

Ad lucrum per scientia (toward wealth through science),

Ray Blanco
for The Daily Reckoning

Ed. Note: Over the coming months, Ray will be keeping a watchful eye on the medical research field, relaying any important info he gets to a select group of in the know readers. Click here to learn how you can become one of them.