by Ali Rezek and Hannah Steber, Genetic Counseling Class of 2022
Today (April 25th), people around the United States will celebrate National DNA Day! Why do we celebrate DNA when we can’t see it? The goal of National DNA Day is to give us an opportunity to learn more about advances in genomics, or the study of all the DNA in humans, and how those have impacted our daily lives.
You may not even know all the ways DNA has changed the world! From new approaches to medicine to improving the way farmers approach our food supply, our daily lives would look completely different without all the hard work of genomics scientists throughout the years. So read on to learn a little more about the vast journey we have been on to get to our understanding of genomics and how you can celebrate DNA Day!
1952: Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase discover that genes, the specific units of instruction that tell our bodies how to learn and grow, were actually made up of DNA. This launched a race to discover the structure of DNA. If scientists were able to crack the code of DNA, it could lead to a better understanding of genes, diseases, and the human body.
- Phebus Levene discovered that DNA is made of three parts: sugar groups, molecules called phosphates, and base pairs called nucleotides. If we think of DNA like an instruction manual, nucleotides are the letters that spell each instruction. Unlike the English alphabet, which is made up of 26 letters, the DNA alphabet is made up of 4 nucleotide letters: A, T, C, and G. Then Erwin Chargaff added to this discovery with the realization that the number of A’s is roughly equal to the number of T’s, while the number of C’s is roughly equal to the number of G’s. This would be crucial to finally discovering the structure of DNA.
- Rosalind Franklin made a most important contribution by taking an X-ray picture of a DNA picture, which demonstrated a helical, or spiral, structure. She worked in a lab with Maurice Wilkins who showed the unpublished picture of the DNA structure that Franklin discovered to two researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick. Franklin’s work was the lynchpin for their discovery of the first model of the DNA double helix. The structure is like a twisted ladder—the phosphates and sugar groups are on the outside like a backbone (work from Levene) while the nucleotides pair and stack in the middle with A/T always pairing and C/G always pairing (work from Chargaff). This unique structure allows for DNA to be replicated and passed down from generation to generation. 1962: Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the structure of DNA, but Rosalind Franklin was unfortunately left out due to her death and exclusion by the primarily male scientific community. The increased understanding of the structure of DNA unlocked a flood of discoveries in genomics.
1955: Joe Hin Tiho found that DNA is packaged into structures like suitcases called chromosomes, and there are 46, or 23 pairs, of them in humans.
1977: Frederick Sanger invented a method called DNA sequencing that allowed scientists to read the letters of DNA.
1983: the first human disease was mapped to a specific gene. The gene that causes Huntington’s disease, a condition that causes a progressive brain disorder, was found to be located on chromosome 4.
Mid-1980’s: Talk began of something called the Human Genome Project. The goal of this project was to map the human genome and determine the sequence of its 3.2 billion A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s.
1990 (April): The Human Genome Project officially began. Along the way, an important resolution called the Bermuda Principles was passed. This stated that all human genomic sequence information should be made freely available to the public, and it reshaped the field of genomics to focus on data sharing between groups.
2003 (April): the Human Genome Project is officially announced as completed! This is the first time in history that a human genome is almost entirely sequenced from start to finish, and the project was achieved almost two years ahead of schedule.
2003: Congress passed concurrent resolutions designating DNA Day as April 25th to honor the work of Franklin, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins.
Since then, countless discoveries have been made that improve the way we diagnose and treat disease, and DNA Day is a great way to learn about how these advances have impacted our lives. And we have so much more to learn still about the human genome!
Now are you excited about DNA Day?!
We hope so! We have summarized a list of interesting reads for young and adult readers about DNA, genetics, and genetic conditions.
Books for Young Readers:
1) The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA by Rajani LaRocca
Reading Age: 4+ | Length: 40 pages
Great starting point for littles to begin exploring the concepts of DNA and genetics! This book discusses DNA, cells, chromosomes, and what, “makes us into people, instead of poodles.” LaRocca explains these concepts in a family friendly and humorous way to allow every reader to learn. This, paired with Steven Salerno’s beautiful illustrations help make abstract concepts come alive. Bonus material includes pages of scientific facts about DNA, more educational resources forvkids, and a fun experiment to extract DNA from a banana!
2) Rosalind Franklin by Isabel Sanchez Vegara
Reading Age: 4+ | Length: 32 pages
This book is volume 65 of the Little People, Big Dreams biographies for kids series. Here, Vegara tells the story of Rosalind Franklin and her contributions to the world. This book dives into the importance of hard work and following your dreams and aims to inspire the next generation of young scientists.
3) My DNA Diary: Cystic Fibrosis by Lisa Mullan
Reading Age: 9+ | Length: 56 pages
Lisa Mullan dives into DNA, genetics, and a specific genetic condition. If you couldn’t tell by the title, this book primarily focuses on cystic fibrosis! Mullan does a great job explaining what cystic fibrosis is and what causes it. She slowly builds on concepts to help young readers gain a deeper understanding of genetics and how it is connected to cystic fibrosis. No background in genetics is needed to begin reading, Mullan introduces the subject in a way that is fun for readers and may just inspire them to journey into science or healthcare.
4) What Stars Are Made of by Sarah Allen
Reading Age: 10+ | Length: 288 pages
Main character Libby Monroe loves science and her family. In this book, readers follow along as Libby strives to grow up, find herself, take care of her loved ones as they take care of her. Libby was born with Turner syndrome, which makes some things hard but author Sarah Allen reminds readers that kindness and joy are enough when things don’t go as planned. Allen herself has Turner syndrome, a genetic condition in which females are born with one X chromosome. In interviews, Allen explains that growing up she never saw stories about girls like her, going through the same health concerns and developmental trajectories. She describes this book as a way to tell the story of growing up with Turner syndrome and feeling a little bit different.
Books for Adult Readers
1) The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Reading Age: Adult | Length: 592 pages
This read is a great way to dive into the history of genetics and heritability. In this book, Mukherjee weaves together science, social history, and his own personal narrative to unzip the story of the genome. He begins with the earliest stories of heritability and Gregor Mendel’s peas and takes us all the way through to more modern technology of CRISPR and mapping the human genome. This text is heavier on scientific knowledge although, readers shouldn’t be turned off due to a limited knowledge of genetics. A glossary is included at the back of the book to help define complex terms.
2) She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer
Reading Age: Adult | Length: 672 pages
In this book, Zimmer focuses on what we pass on from generation to generation. Similar to The Gene: An Intimate History, this work weaves together historical and current scientific research. Zimmer targets an audience that has some knowledge of genetics and provides further information to build on this. He helps bring readers up to date on current happenings in research and dips into ethical dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering and the latest scientific advances.
3) The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean
Reading Age: Adult | Length: 432 pages
Another wonderful collection of stories bringing together science, history, and the author’s own genetics. Having a science background helps readers to easily understand Kean’s direction but he does a good job making the language clear and direct allowing all readers to learn. His storytelling abilities keep the science of genetics entertaining as he discusses DNA’s impact on the past, present, and future of humankind. Kean touches on everything from the genes of crazy cat ladies and JFK’s tan to our not-so-distant Neanderthal relatives.
4) The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown
Reading Age: Adult | Length: 305 pages
Brown highlights the joys and struggles of raising his son, Walker, who has a genetic condition. Walker has cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC) syndrome, a rare condition that results in an unusual facial appearance, inability to speak, and frequent compulsion to hit oneself. In this book, Brown sets out to explore questions that Walker’s doctors don’t have answers to. Along the way he speaks to geneticists, neurologists, and parents to other children with CFC syndrome. Brown paints a picture of societies assumptions about disabled individuals and his journey to accepting Walker as he is.
5) The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness by Jennifer Latson
Reading Age: Adult | Length: 304 pages
Main character, Eli was diagnosed with Williams syndrome at a young age. In this book, Latson helps readers understand the day-to-day of this genetic condition telling Eli’s story through the eyes of his mother. Individuals with Williams syndrome often have diminished social inhibitions which provide unique challenges when navigating independence for children. This book weaves the science and history of Williams syndrome with the trials, tribulations, and joys of raising a child who is a little bit different.
6) This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein
Reading Age: Adult | Length: 268 pages
Edelstein writes a memoir about her decisions following receiving the news of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. This book focuses less on the technical aspects of genetics and more on the lived experiences of someone grappling with the decision to proceed with testing for a heritable cancer condition. After her father dies from cancer Edelstein finds that she is at risk of having inherited a genetic change causing Lynch syndrome. This book allows readers to learn what it’s like to be faced with a life changing genetic experience at as a young adult.