Knowledge that we all have DNA and what this means is getting around. The informed public is well aware that our cells run on DNA software called the genome. This software is passed from parent to child, in the long line of evolutionary history that dates back billions of years – in fact, research published this year pushes back the origin of life on Earth another 300 million years to 4.1 billion years ago. This chain of DNA has undergone significant changes. Life has diversified into bacteria, sharks, bees, humans and so much more — 99% of all life is extinct.
DNA is information. It determines key traits like eye and hair colour. We are decoding DNA at a fast pace, but still have a long way to go to understand the language of life. The first twelve months of this column, the Double Helix, have been filled with topical stories about how DNA research is shaping science and society. Evidence that interest in DNA is growing in the public imagination can be found almost anywhere – even with Santa.
In this clever school presentation, a student builds the metaphor of a cell being Santa’s Workshop. There are holiday cards for sale that are decorated with Santa’s DNA. The magic of Christmas has also been linked to Santa’s DNA.
Instead of the usual 23 pairs of chromosomes that we all have, Santa has three extra chromosomes. His condition, Trisomy 25, means he also has three unusually large chromosome called “Holly Homolog”, “Redemption of Scrooge Homolog”, and the “Angel of Christmas Homolog”, the first of which is shared with his Elves and reindeer. DNA testing was done on hair follicles found besides the remains of a mince-pie and inside an elf-hat knitted by Mrs Claus that Santa tried on.
The chosen topics of my column, The Double Helix, highlight the diversity of the stories about DNA that are making the headlines. Looking back, 2015 has been the year “of a million genomes.”
The first article appeared in January 2015 and proposed that we are at the start of the Practical Genomics Revolution that will be fully upon us by 2020. This was triggered by the news story that Genomics England had announced plans to create eleven centres of Genomic Medicine to help complete its 100k Human Genomes Project. This post was followed in February by the announcement from Obama about funding for a One Million Genomes project in the USA to support the concept of precision medicine, the idea that we can tailor medical therapies to best suit our DNA. The next two months’ articles explored why we need such mega-sequencing projects and focused on the benefits of sharing data and the types of studies that can be undertaken once huge quantities of DNA data are pooled and freely available.
The May article explored other uses of DNA based on this molecule’s ability to store information and form unusual shapes. June explored the creep of DNA into myriad fields as evidenced by the number of TED Talks about DNA. July paid homage to International Kissing Day and the fact that research shows we trade up to 80 million bacteria in every romantic smooch. August pointed out how internet speculators are buying up domain names related to the DNA revolution – the URL “DNAMatch.com” is for sale for a cool $750k.
September brought the shocking news that Kuwait had instigated mandatory DNA testing for all permanent residents, changing the landscape of national DNA programmes. In October, I chose to focus on the amazing story of how cancerous cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 to become the first cells to grow in the laboratory and found a multi-billion dollar industry based on the immortal nature of perhaps the most unusual genome in history. A discussion of “the Angelina Jolie effect” and the role celebrities are playing in bio-literacy and the uptake of genetic testing capped off an exciting year in DNA research.
If this December article had a single focus, it would be the recent publication of a call for a Unified Microbiome Initiative, complemented by a second call to make this effort global. Certainly, 2015 has also been the “year of the microbiome”, the trillions of single-celled organisms that inhabit our bodies. It will likely be one of the highlights of scientific advance in 2016, as research in this fascinating field continues to transform our views of ourselves, medicine, and many other fields.
While Santa’s genome would be of extreme interest, I would actually prefer to see his microbiome. Santa’s microbiome will be a product of his surroundings. It would be more similar to his wife, Mrs Claus, than a random member of the population and it would be quite stable over the months between Christmases if he were healthy. It would have formed in the first two years of life, initiated with his passage through the birth canal of his mother, and if she breast-fed him, bolstered with natural sugars that promote the growth of healthy bacteria.
His reindeer also have microbiomes, like all animals, and he would likely be more similar to them in gut composition than other reindeer – as has been shown in studies of similarities among people and their family dogs. The microbiome has been associated with so many wide-flung attributes today, from obesity, to mood, to a range of other diseases. Maybe it even explains his ability to fly.
2016 will also be about “gene-editing”, one of the hottest topics in genomics this year, especially as significant concerns were expressed over germ line editing with the CRISPR-CAS system.
Perhaps if the field advances far enough, we will be able to write the magic of Santa’s Christmas into all our genomes.
Featured image credit: Abstract light. CC0 via Pixabay.