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DNA: The amazing molecule

DNA is the foundation of life. It codes the instructions for the creation of all life on Earth. Scientists are now reading the autobiographies of organisms across the Tree of Life and writing new words, paragraphs, chapters, and even books as synthetic genomics gains steam.

Quite astonishingly, the beautiful design and special properties of DNA makes it capable of many other amazing feats.

Here are five man-made functions of DNA, all of which are contributing to the growing “industrial-DNA” phenomenon.

(1) DNA is a storage device.

An increasing number of cultural artefacts have now been ‘written’ in DNA. DNA is a code of four molecules nicknamed A, C, G and T and can represent not only the ‘language of life’ but any information. George Church wrote his book Regenesis in DNA. More recently, the band OK Go printed a version of their album in DNA. Researchers are working on increasing the amount of information that can be stored per unit of DNA and on making reading these “DNA tapes” error-free through engineered redundancy, progress that has opened up talk of information archives that could last 2 million years.

Double Helix Bridge, Singapore, by Christian Schmitt. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Double Helix Bridge, Singapore, by Christian Schmitt. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

(2) DNA is a nametag.

The biological name of every organism is written in its DNA. It only takes a short run of bases to create a DNA sequence not found in nature. This is because the unique combinations of A, C, G, T are mind-boggling vast. DNA is also extremely robust. These two features are being capitalized upon to build up a “DNA tagging” industry. These synthetic tags can be used to safeguard valuables, as they can be used to track and authenticate. Robbers beware of stepping into invisible mists of DNA that prove culpability. There are DNA ‘guns’ for tagging individuals in a crowd, exploding “DNA fog” packs that explode upon theft, and sprays of DNA tags to protect everything from cars to textiles.

(3) DNA is a building block.

DNA can be folded into an array of unique structures. The burgeoning field of “DNA origami” is producing a baffling range of DNA tools. DNA can now be folded using computer algorithms and written out to create complex strands of DNA that act as scaffolds, robots and motors. DNA nanobots might even be the next technology to cure cancers by delivering drugs right to tumours.

(4) DNA is a flame retardant.

Coating cotton t-shirts with DNA extracted from herring sperm, the richest source of DNA, protects them from fire. The chemical explanation lies in the phosphate in DNA which acts in much the same way as ammonium polyphosphate, a flame retardant.

(5) DNA is inspiration.

The double helix is now wide-spread as a cultural reference. From the Helix Bridge in Singapore to DNA-art companies that offer to put your unique DNA pattern on anything from coffee cups to engagement rings to endless variations of decorative helices to adorn us, DNA is a physical icon and also a semantic one. “It’s in my DNA”, is a common phrase. Porsche and many other brands have also adopted the phrase “Design DNA”.

The properties that make DNA capable of coding life also endow it with a range of other functions. What will we use DNA for next?

Featured image credit: Christmas DNA lights, by Kevin Dooley. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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