I have long considered myself to be a citizen scientist with a special interest in DNA. I grew up in a family affected by a very rare genetic disorder. I grew up in a world of tests, hospital stays and drinks made of amino acids. As a result, I acquired bits and bobs of scientific terminology through osmosis.
Only now, as a writer wanting to inject some plausible science into my fiction, do I realise how much I misunderstood as a child. And just how far our understanding of DNA has advanced since my childhood.
To address this shortfall in my learnings, I started with Kat Arney’s Herding Hemingway’s Cats – How our Genes Work. I was quickly out of my depth. I approached my daughter’s high school science teacher who supplied me with a Year 12 biology text book and an earnest invitation to ask any questions I may have. (Boy did he regret that one.)
Why the heck did I stop paying attention in science class at the age of 16? This stuff is fabulous!
Yes, there are 23 chromosomes. But you actually have two sets. One from mum and one from dad. Each cell in your body contains two metres of DNA making up the 46 chromosomes that contain the blueprint that is you. Each chromosome is a unique set of instructions from 200,000 DNA letters to 249 million DNA letters long. These letters bundle up into 20,000 distinct genes that may be either on or off depending on random chance when you were being transcribed from a fertilised egg to an embryo.
And what gets me most about all the catch up learning I have done lately is that we are only just getting a handle on the what, but absolutely no body has a clue about the why.
Science people! It’s great. Just don’t expect answers. Science is made of questions.