An Idiot’s Guide to: DNA Basics

A light introduction into the wacky world of biological genetics.


Warning: this is going to be a boring post.

“More boring than your other posts, Tony?”

Shut up, dear reader. And pull up a desk, because school’s back in session.

The lesson today: DNA. You know, that twisted ladder thing you imagined climbing up while you were spacing out during biology class (or was that just me . . . ).

To understand DNA, though, we must first understand:

Cells

robert-hooke-2
Robert Hooke after getting his perm.

Consider the humble cell. The most basic unit of all life on this planet.

English naturalist Robert Hooke first discovered the cell in the 17th century when he looked at a piece of cork through an early compound microscope and notice all these tiny things floating about.

He coined the term from the Latin word cella which means “small room,” because it reminded him of “cells” in honeycombs, and later published his findings in the NYT’s Best Seller Micrographia.

And cells are pretty dope. They do things like convert energy for your body as well as divide a bunch of times to make things like muscles and scar tissue. Your body also contains TRILLIONS of them, so I can’t be bothered to tell you what all of them do. Just know that they’re important.

Every cell utilizes DNA though in order to control a lot of what it can do, which brings us to . . .

DNA

Karyotype of the 23 pair of chromosomes in a human body.
A karyotype of the 23 pair of chromosomes in your body.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) carries all of the instructions for how your body should function. It does this by sending messages to your cells and order them around like a molecular drill sergeant.

A small percentage of this DNA can be used to produce proteins, which do things like make meat and make you swole. This portion is called genes.

Think of genes as the blueprint for your body, creating proteins by turning DNA into RNA [ribonucleic acid] and RNA into those sweet, sweet gains.

DNA itself is made up of these things called nucleotides, which we can understand as the building blocks of DNA. They come in four types that can pair up: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.

These molecules mesh up with each other to create that famous double-helix, which is called a chromosome. An average human cell contains 92 molecules of DNA that pair to make 46 chromosomes. Each of those form chromosome pairs to create 23 pairs.

23 . . . where have I seen that number before?

Though DNA can be found in a variety of places throughout the cell, we’re going to be mostly concerned with two organelles:

  • The Nucleus: The cell’s control center, which contains the vast majority of its genetic material. This is where you’ll find autosomal DNA used in genetic tests like 23andMe and AncestryDNA.
  • The Mitochondria: THE POWERHOUSE OF THE CELL (as if I had to tell you that). Here you’ll find mitochondrial DNA, surprisingly enough.

These types of DNA are utilized throughout a variety of different genetic tests, but more on that later.

DNA Fun Fact:

We all know the story of James Watson and Francis Crick who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, but we rarely ever hear about Swiss biochemist Frederich Miescher who first observed DNA in the late 19th century. Miescher came down with a bad case of typhoid fever when he was young and almost became a priest. But his father pressured him into medicine, inadvertently laying down the groundwork for molecular biology for centuries to come.

Moral of the story: helicopter parenting works, people.

That’s all I have for you now. Like I said, it’s reeeaaalll basic. Hope it gives you a bit more of an understanding of how your body functions though!

Next up . . .

  • Grandma’s story: My ba ngaoi lived like ten lives before I was even born. Now I want to tell just a piece of that story.
  • History of the Boat People: brief overview on the Vietnamese diaspora following the Fall of Saigon and where my family fits in it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “An Idiot’s Guide to: DNA Basics

  1. Christina Female Odom

    Tony, I LOVE reading your posts (or is this called a blog?)! You are a natural story teller and writer! I hope to see this on the bookshelf at Barnes and Noble some day!

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