DNA Imipacts Medicine, Offers Business Opportunities

Article excerpt

From the box office to the research lab, a profound fascination with an ancient molecule is permeating the minds of business leaders, scientists, physicians, theologians and historians _ not to mention the people flocking to see Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."

This molecule, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), has become a common topic of discussion across dinner tables and over petri dishes. Fast and furious scientific discovery focused on DNA is unfolding new knowledge that is transforming our understanding of all sciences including agriculture, evolution, psychiatry and other aspects of medicine.

DNA has been called the thread of life, the energy of life, and the code of codes. Understanding what it is, what it does and where it will lead researchers is exciting as well as critical if one wants a clear perspective of the new frontier we are encountering. Locked in the mysteries of DNA are medical breakthroughs as well as tremendous business opportunities.

To begin understanding the implications of current research endeavors, it is helpful to understand the basics of DNA. What is DNA?

In every human cell _ of which there are billions _ there are 23 pairs of chromosomes. One chromosome contains about 3,000-4,000 genes. Every gene contains chemical building blocks which produce proteins. This is where the extraordinary story of DNA begins.

These chemical building blocks are complex molecular sequences of DNA. They are found in the nucleus of every cell except red blood cells. To demonstrate the size of DNA, if each chromosome was 1,000 miles long, a gene would be one twentieth of a mile and DNA would be one twentieth of an inch. If all the DNA in each cell were unravelled, it would stretch around the planet.

DNA holds all the genetic information necessary to orchestrate the production of proteins. It is the proteins that are responsible for every life process of the cell _ from carrying oxygen to contracting muscles. Hence, DNA is often referred to as the blueprint of life. The structure and makeup of DNA is a rather recent discovery and is one of the watershed scientific breakthroughs of our lifetime.

Just 40 years ago, on April 23, 1953, an issue of Nature published the work of James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick stating that the structure of DNA is a spiral helix. Watson referred to it as the "stairway to the stars."

This double helix molecule is made up of linked nucleotide subunits. These subunits consist of a phosphate molecule and a sugar which form the parallel sides of the helix, with "stairsteps" of paired sequences of four nitrogen bases: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine.

The four bases (A, T, G and C) are the alphabet of our code of life. The pairing from one strand to the other is tightly restricted. For example, A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C.

Watson and Crick's discovery spurred great excitement in the scientific world. It uncovered the mode in which DNA replicates: the two strands simply unravel and a new strand attaches with complementary coding to create identical pieces of DNA. This finding meant that the source of heredity was found: genetic information is carried through to each cell and from generation to generation via DNA. What advances have been made with our knowledge of DNA?

Since the discovery of DNA and its functions, scientists have sought to uncover the fundamental questions about human life which are hidden in this mysterious molecular package.

The Human Genome Project is an illustration of the international effort to seek the knowledge that lies within the human cell. This project, funded by the National Institutes of Health with $3 billion, began three years ago with the mission of mapping the entire human genome, our genetic blueprint, by the year 2005. The result: we will be able to identify the exact gene along the length of each chromosome. …