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Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is the complex organic molecular structure that is responsible for encoding information that passes on genetically inherited traits in living creatures. DNA is part of all eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, in addition to a number of viruses. Although the presence of DNA had been detected in the middle of the 19th century, it was not until 1953 that the Nobel Prizewinning scientists Francis Crick and James Watson determined the characteristic double helix spiral of DNA. DNA strands consist of a chain of nucleotides, which are composed of a sugar molecule (deoxyribose) attached to which are nitrogenous bases known as pyrimidines and purines, as well as a phosphate attachment. The strands are bound to each other covalently and according to a complex, but systematic set of rules. This makes for a stable arrangement in which the DNA can replicate itself by dividing the strands. Portions of each strand contain information known as genes, and these are passed on to the daughters of DNA division as a form of inheritance. The divided DNA consists of one original strand, and one newly created strand, which provides for some variation and evolution within a stable framework that reduces the possibility of entropy.
DNA double strands are combined in proteins within cells intensively, and these form chromosomes of a nature determined by the type of cell. Chromosomes reside within the nuclei of eukaryotic cells and within the cytoplasm of prokaryotic cells, which do not have a nucleus confined within a membrane. DNA also resides in other parts of eukaryotic cells and may also be part of plasmids, which are self-replicating bundles of genetic material found in organisms such as bacteria. The DNA within viruses differs in that it can take either single or double-stranded forms or else may be based on ribonucleic acid (RNA). Since DNA necessarily varies between individuals through carrying genetic material from parents, it is possible to identify unique configurations in people (and animals) and create a database of DNA fingerprints. This would be of considerable assistance in forensics, although it opens up a number of civil liberties issues. Similar technology is also being used to identify people who may be at risk of genetically transmitted diseases and medical conditions.
The number of genes within the DNA chains ranges from 20,000-25,000. Identifying all of these, together with the billions of combinations of chemical base pairs that help to construct them, has been the task of the human genome project that was completed in 2003 and represented a triumph of international scientific research collaboration and organization. Even so, progress toward solving technical issues has outstripped public awareness of and ability to understand the relevance of the work.
There has been considerable research and development aimed at identifying and exploiting the commercial possibilities of DNA and its related technologies. Hundreds of possibilities have been identified, although the complex laboratory techniques and testing processes have ensured that few profitable projects have yet been placed on the market. However, the potential for products that may assist in oncology, for example, provides an enticing prospect that has led to the ongoing availability of investment in science.
There remain a number of ethical issues in terms of manipulating and altering DNA sequences. For a variety of reasons, including religious and political reasons, some people believe that such manipulation is problematic and should not be permitted. The issues are complex and yet to be fully tested in legal systems around the world or in societal discourse. States that seek to inhibit such research will find leading pharmaceutical companies relocating to other regions where their activities are considered legally acceptable.
- Mark Belsey and Alex K. Pavlou, “The DNA/RNA Market to 2010,” Journal of Commercial Biotechnology (v.11/3, 2005);
- Human Genome Project Publications, www.ornl.gov;
- James Watson and Andrew Berry, DNA: The Secret of Life (Knopf, 2004).