We’re All Related: 12 Things You Might Not Know About Human DNA

Within each and every cell of our bodies is a secret code, the language of the nucleus, which is the DNA we inherit from our parents and grandparents. This coding is present when we are born and when we die and will be passed on to our offspring and to theirs. It determines the majority of those characteristics which make us unique: body shape and size, skin tone, personality traits, artistic or intellectual capabilities, special talents and innate habits. Our human genome is what sets us apart from other mammals, but also what most closely links us to our common primate relatives, those creatures who roamed the earth even before before homo erectus or homo sapiens.

Though DNA is what distinguishes us from each other through hair color, temperament and even vocal chords, it is also the greatest unifying factor between humans and our ancestors and evidential proof that we are all part of the same family. It reveals to us that mammals, humans, fungi and even some plants are all closely interrelated and evolved from one ancient single-celled microbe. But DNA, a relatively new discovery, is a secret code visible only beneath a microscope. There is plenty of mystery shrouding this scientific language, but plenty of truths we have discovered behind the curtain of DNA thanks to the work of the 20th century’s star microbiologists:

  1. The classic expression of surprise, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” may not be so far off from the scientific fact of the matter as we thought. In fact, we now know that we share over 97% of our genetic blueprint with orangutans and a whopping 99% with chimps. Those tiny differences – the 1-3% – explain why most of us look and behave a little differently than these monkey relatives of ours. It is likely that the common ancestor of chimps, humans, orangutans and bonobo monkeys flourished in Africa some five million years ago. Over the centuries, humans stood up, exercised our hands and feet, developed social norms and massive civilizations. But we still share the vast majority of our DNA – and some of our facial expressions, as you can see below – with the monkeys.
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    Image courtesy of Adrigu on Flickr

    Today, the Max Planck team of researchers has found that chimps and bonobos share 99.6% of their genetics, with humans falling slightly below that. We may only have to go back a few thousand family trees to find that our DNA at one point and time originated from the same father and mother as the chimp’s next door.

  2. If you’re under the impression that DNA doesn’t affect your daily life or dealings with other people, read on. A recent scientific study of over 2000 Americans shows that people tend to befriend those with similar DNA to their own. The astonishingly significant findings of the journal study found that, “Pairs of friends are, on average, as genetically similar to one another as fourth cousins,” proving the age old adage that birds of a feather flock together. The study results serve to reinforce the theory that humans instinctively, and largely unconsciously, seek out places, situations and people who make them comfortable. People are generally more drawn towards others whose observable traits or characteristics are matched to themselves – sort of a “mirroring” effect that validates ourselves and our own quirks, appearance and behaviors when we see that other people look or act in comparable ways. While the results of the study don’t particularly lend themselves to diversity, they certainly help to explain why the theory of opposites attracting is rarely the case. We and our friends are inherently and acutely aware of our own DNA, like it or not.
  3. Those lauded and famous scientists, Watson and Crick, who are supposed to have been the vanguards of the breakthrough discovery of DNA, are not quite who they are thought to be. While they did uncover a fairly influential and previously unheard of notion – the fact that DNA appears as the geometric structure of a double helix – the initial introduction to DNA was brought to us by the lesser known Friedrich Miescher. Miescher hailed from Switzerland and in 1869 brought the concept of nucleic acid into the world as he was closely examining bodily fluid and recognized for the first time the “nuclein” within a cell. This research prepared the way for DNA – DeoxyriboNucleic Acid – to be understood as a method of genetic inheritance by Canadian-American Oswald Avery, a molecular biologist. Through the teamwork and collaboration of these pioneers with microscopes, we have come to know that genes and chromosomes make DNA, which in turn determines the very essence of our human characteristics in our genotypes and phenotypes.

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    Image courtesy of Ramberg Media Images on Flickr

  4. We’re definitely betting that you didn’t know this little tidbit about DNA: according to history, LSD had a direct affect on the discovery of DNA as we know it. Though Crick didn’t actual uncover the existence of DNA itself, he and his partner Watson are attributed with illuminating DNA’s double helix formation, a vision which Crick claims became clear only after he spent some quality time with the hallucinogenic drug that is known to bring new patterns and colors into people’s consciousness.
  5. The daily decisions we make about lifestyle, diet, exercise, thought patterns and environment can directly affect the physical sequence of our DNA. Stressful events and factors in our lives can link various methyl groups to our genetics, or change the histones that make up our DNA. Think these changes are too insignificant to notice? Think again. These subtle shifts in the well-being of our nuclei can go so far as to impact the genetics of our children, making them more or less susceptible to hereditary factors such as high blood pressure or life expectancy. Deeply genetically influenced aspects of the body like heart attack risk, obesity, and cholesterol levels are all affected by how and where we choose to live. Moreover, these decisions will pass on to our offspring through the chromosomes they inherit from us. We are all born with one set of DNA, but we have the power to consciously change it for the better and the future. See this study for more on how stress affects DNA.
  6. Our bodies are so loaded with life-changing DNA that if we untwisted all the molecules in every speck of genetic material in our bodies, the results would create a string that circles 10 billion miles around the earth. But this massive length is paltry compared to the stretching capacity of an exotic white blossoming plant in the sub-alpine regions of Japan. The Paris Japonica flower, with 40 chromosomes and over 150 billion base pairs of DNA for each cell, possesses the longest known genome of any organism. Since the DNA of any single Japonica cell stretched end-to-end would be longer than 300 feet, you can only imagine how many billion miles the DNA strand of an entire plant would reach.
  7. Say we have been hanging around evolving and revolving on the earth for roughly 40 million years with our ape ancestors. This means that over this vast period of time, a good 8%-10% of our human DNA has originated in viruses that have been introduced and worked their way through the generations. The long protein chains of viruses, diseases and mutations can live and steep quietly in the depths of our DNA without ever surfacing to express themselves as illness or disease. Nevertheless, they are there, and their presence is often only noticed when combined with a similar viral or mutant component from another human. For instance, red hair and blue eyes is genetically considered a mutation. You may never have had instances of these physical traits in your family for generations, but if you were to reproduce with someone whose DNA had similar mutations present, you have a good chance of producing offspring with red hair and blue eyes. Same concept goes for viruses, and genetically transferred conditions such as heart disease or endometriosis.
  8. The largest collaborative research initiative in the world that is primarily focused on biology is the Human Genome Project. In full force since 1990, the HGP is striving to unlock the secret code of DNA by ascertaining the various chemicals that make up the basis for the double helix. This patterning and assessing of the human genome is a breakthrough in scientific understanding and would act as a catalyst for remarkable progress in modern processes like cloning, stem cell treatment, and disease prevention through vaccination. In 2004, the Human Genome Project published an important finding proving that there are about 20,500 genes in every human. Mice also have approximately this exact number. This correlation may prove to be very valuable in terms of disease and how certain genetically inherited conditions express themselves in mice and in humans.
  9. Have you wondered why it is so tough to get rid of a stubborn fungal infection? Because, according to mushroom man Paul Stamets, fungi and human genomes are so similar that sometimes our bodies can’t tell where we end and fungus begins! Thus the body does not try to rid the body of that growth or infection because it recognizes it as itself. Though we may consider ourselves rather distantly related to our tree and flower cousins in the plant kingdom, in contrast we are in fact as genetically similar to members of the fungi world as we are to other mammals. On the scale of genetic comparisons, we share only very minute differences with the common button mushroom or the portobello. People and fungi are both eukaryotes, which means that we carry complicated nuclei inside of our cell membranes, and use this information to perceive the world through our genetic makeup. Sure, mushrooms don’t have arms, legs, hair or eyes in the same way that we do – but mushroom cells are given mobility by their flagellum, tiny whipping tails that allow fungi to move and grow in the same way that we do.
  10. It’s a given that these days humans have figured out our own ways to create things like satellites, Ipads, pest-free corn and even clouds. But creating synthetic DNA? Incredibly, molecular scientists have figured out that they can switch man-made molecules for one of the basic chemicals of the double helix to make synthetic genetic material. Despite DNA’s complex role in the body, the essential structure of the stuff is relatively simple: a sugar (ribose), a phosphate, and a base (such as thymine). Simply substituting a lab-created nucleotide for one of these components succeeds in creating a form of DNA which is manmade, easily produceable, changeable, and even more hardy than the DNA we are born with. Voila – DNA on demand!
  11. Not all experimentation with DNA happens in a lab by white-coated microbiologists. Did you know that DNA can be extracted with household objects from stuff that you have lying around on your kitchen counter? All you need is water, salt, rubbing alcohol, those old bananas you haven’t gotten around to eating yet, a plastic bag, a coffee filter, a toothpick and a clear glass. Since DNA can be found inside the nucleus of every living thing, all you have to do in theory to access the double helix is to break down the cell walls of the organism (in this case, a banana), filter out the plant material, and you’re left with self-extracted DNA! Learn how to do the whole experiment here. Bet you didn’t think it was that easy!
  12. If you’ve ever been curious about how genetically modified crops (GMO) are bred, just know that it’s all in the DNA. When biologists, scientists and farmers want to develop a crop of corn that is pest-resistant, produces twice the yield that non-GMO crops would, and survives floods like no other, they tinker with the genome of the corn seed to create a new strain that has all these properties. Essentially, they extract the particular characteristics – such as pest resistance – out of other organisms and implant them into the corn to make it “think” that it has that property to0. DNA is also used to then test the crop when it is flourishing, to see if the genome of the resulting crop is what the breeders thought it would be, or if it has mutated.

Teachers: 20 Ways to Motivate Your Students to Learn More of their Family History

tips for family historyIf you’re tired of assigning students projects like working on their family tree or writing a story about the life of an older relative, and getting a tired, bored, unenthusiastic response from your classroom, there is hope for you. Students may be hesitant to explore their family histories and mysteries for a wide variety of reasons: they may be shy to ask their parents for help, they may not have had a comfortable past experience with their extended family, or they may think that their parents will be hesitant to share information about their other relatives. Whether learning their family history means meeting a distant cousin they haven’t yet met, looking over mom’s old scrapbooks, or phoning grandpa to talk about what his childhood was like, your student will end up getting to know their family and getting insight into their own lives.

Motivating your classroom to investigate into such deeply personal and sentimental material can be like pulling teeth – students are scared of what they might find out if they look too hard, and even parents can be wary, shy or maybe even embarrassed of what their family is “really” like. Jump start your kids’ journey into their family tree by learning ways to encourage them to dig deeper, reach out further to relatives, and genuinely enjoy the chance to study their own beginnings. Look no further for nearly two dozen handy resources, references and tips from one teacher to another on how to get your students excited, interested, and proactive when it comes to delving into their past first-hand.

  1. There’s no better way to teach than by example. In this case, there’s no better way to encourage students to become their own detectives of their mysterious pasts than by doing the same. Bring your family tree, a favorite old photo album of your grandparents, your parents’ wedding pictures, or a framed copy of your family coat of arms into the classroom. Do a day of show and tell where students are asked to bring in one item that represents their family and talk about it. Be open about your extended family, and see how much more willing to open up students are once you have taken the plunge and show them how it’s done. Learning and sharing about your family history can be a new and vulnerable aspect of life that students may never have encountered. World history teacher at a Mulrennan Middle School, Andrew Schwartz, shared his deeply personal story of his father’s death in the 9/11 tragedy with his 6th grade students in a shining example of teacher-student communication. Make sure you create a safe space in your classroom that is a judgment-free, bully-free and open to all. Start by being transparent about your background and show kids that there is nothing to be ashamed of in having grandparents who were immigrants or struggled through hard economic times. Learn to use different family backgrounds as a great example of the beauty of diversity, and be sure to be sensitive to children who might be less than forthcoming about their family – they may have never known as much as they do now about where they came from.
  2. The task of studying genealogy shouldn’t be resigned to biographers, retired scrapbookers and historians. Students who learn the art and science behind each individual’s ancestral origins in elementary school can carry this interest all the way through college and gain deeper understanding of their own history as they go. If students are unfamiliar or hesitant to study their own genealogy, get them hooked into the field by having them research the life of a person they are interested in. Ask students to choose one person, living or dead – they could be a hero, a celebrity, a sports figure or a royal princess – and have them investigate their family history. Have your students make a family tree for their person, write a short paper on their life and background, and find out the names and other details of their extended relatives. They could use the internet, local library, or reference books as resources. At Ancestry.com, students can search historical records, use a slick family tree maker, and learn about genealogical preservation and documentation techniques in an easy-to-understand language.

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    Image courtesy of Brizzle Born and Bred from Flickr

  3. Turn students into their own personal historians, but do it using modern day technology as an aid and way of making genealogy a fun and multimedia study. By incorporating audio, video, and web into your student’s family history projects, you will not only make it more fun for them, but you will turn the study of genealogy into a multi-subject lesson combining history, sociology, geography, technology, writing and research. Include interviewing and speaking skills practice by having your students interview an older adult they admire and using a tape recorder, video recorder and/or camera and notebook to capture their words. Good questions that students can pose to their family members include: What was the highlight of your life? What was the town like where you were born? What is your first memory? What was the most memorable decade of your life and why? How would you like people to remember you? Grab more interview questions here at Family Tree Kids.
  4. Make a family tree with your students. Family trees can be as simple or as complex as your students can handle. For younger students, get out the construction paper, markers, and stickers and have pre-drawn tree outlines that they can color in, along with box shapes that they can fill out with relatives’ names and birth years. Older students may want to build online family trees using a software program or application. Family Tree Magazine, a great resource which offers online genealogy classes, monthly informative podcasts, research toolkits and family history reference site recommendations, is a great go-to to help with all things family tree. Their website is chock full with free and helpful information, including plenty of forms and worksheets to store historical data, help with creating various kinds of visual aids, and a special section devoted just to our Junior Genealogists.

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    Image courtesy of Family Art Studio on Flickr

  5. Build a time capsule to commemorate special family heirlooms, treasures, books, jewelry or relics from the family’s past. At Your Library is a superb resource on time capsules that features historical capsules from long ago, ideas for future capsules, and archival projects for young historians. Have each student choose 5-10 items that are significant to their family and that they can borrow for a period of time. Hand out written assignments that involve these objects of importance, asking questions like: How were they used? Who used them? Where do they come from? Are they part of the past, or could they be used also in the future? Are they something you might want to inherit or pass on to your kids? They can then add these pieces of writing to the time capsule, along with photographs, video or audio they choose to record. Advanced computer students may opt to store time capsule information on a free website of their own making, along with sound, pictures, or movie clips from their family or writing assignments they have completed.
  6. You don’t have to wait until Halloween to tour a cemetery with your classroom. Chose a local cemetery, perhaps one where a volunteer or employee can give you a tour. Practice reading gravestones and tombstones with your students, and have each child pick out a favorite quote or phrase from one of the stones. Take the opportunity to learn about symbolism on tombstones, such as a flags or flowers, and how they speak to the life of the person. Be sure to be sensitive to any uneasiness or sadness this may bring up in your students. This would be a great time to read a book that opens a conversation about family members who have passed on. Family Tree Kids also has some great ideas for cemetery tours as chances for kids to be detectives about their own history.
  7. Reading Stu Feinstein’s story of his penpal dialogue with his grandson Brandon is an inspiration to get kids to learn about their family history by writing letters. Ask students to choose an appropriate older relative who does not live locally and ask them to be their penpal, communicating in the old-fashioned style of handwritten letters and stamps. With each letter exchange, have the child ask questions about a different time period or a different event or place in their relative’s life. Have the student write to their relative about the place and time where he or she lives. This historical exchange will play two roles: to increase the student’s knowledge of their relative’s life in their own words, and to help them to better express themselves through letter-writing about the times they are living in. At the end of the semester or year, take the letters the student has received from their penpal and ask the student to put them into a scrapbook or other form of record keeping journal for a keepsake.
  8. Read with your students. Beyond biographies and historical fiction, though, there’s a great and succinct freebie resource from a prominent genealogist that is a go-to resource for tips and hints to get kids raring to go on their family history projects. Learning Through Family History, by Stephanie Fishman, co-founder of the In Depth Genealogist and Editorial Director of Corn and Cotton Genealogy, is a short and downloadable ebook aid to help kids, parents, and teachers connect more easily and deeply with their roots by using writing exercises, integration techniques and social studies material to include genealogy in every day life and learning. It’s a great start to a classroom year full of learning about pedigrees, census records, birth and marriage certificates, and family trees. Sign up for the newsletter and then access the guide here.
  9. Get students hands and voices involved with their family history by having them act out short vignettes from their families. First, assign each student to go home and ask an older adult about a time in their life that they remember clearly when they were happy, sad, scared or excited. Have the adult tell the child a story about that time, either orally or in writing. Back in the classroom, each child should pair up with another and the two should act out a skit about each relative’s story. For instance, the two students could act out one’s grandmother trying to scrape enough food together to make it through the toughest times of the Great Depression, and they could then act out the story of the other student’s uncle driving his first brand new Chevrolet. These intergenerational skits will help the students to live those small moments of history that become so important, as role-playing adds an extra dimension to learning that will be memorable, exciting and expanding.
  10. Check out census records from around the times of the births of students grandparents or even great-grandparents. Community centers, museums, newspapers, schools, churches and libraries can be great hubs for this kind of information. Students will be able to find out details about the who, when, where, and how many of their family histories all by looking at the historical data that is collected using a census. Print off the most recent US census form that is distributed and see if your students can fill it out to the best of their ability. Compare the census in your town between 100 years ago and now, and let your students see if they can distinguish the differences. Why might there be smaller average family sizes than a century ago? Why is a family’s typical income so much higher now? The National Archives have the best access to free census information from the federal government. Ancestry.com and Heritagequest.com, however, also provide access to plenty of federal census data.
  11. Ask parents to get involved with their own genealogy. Encourage families to have “Family History Night” at their house, where the parents and the children cook a traditional or favorite family dish for dinner, perhaps something that Grandma or Aunt Kathy always used to make. Then have parents dig out all those old photo albums, holiday pictures, or vintage heirlooms that are hiding in the attic and do a show and tell with the kids. Ask parents to tell stories of their childhood or their extended family. Parents can make a matching game by writing story hints, events, or trigger words on index cards, and then writing a family member’s names on other cards, and having kids match the event or cue word with the relative. Or play a personalized version of the Family History Game that you make with your own stories and life happenings.
  12. Transform one wall of your classroom into a Coat of Arms Hall of Fame. Have each student obtain a copy or print-out of their family name’s coat of arms. If none is available, have students design their own using a basic template and then have them draw in objects of significance or things that best represent their family (i.e. a dog, sports medal, or tree). Some teachers may choose to even use a resource like Make Your Coat of Arms, a company that will design a family crest for you based on your specified family values and interests. Alternatively, plenty of coat of arms templates can be found online for common use, printed, and then colored in by students. Then have each student tape or paste their coat of arms to the wall to admire them. Activities that can take place at this point might include a guessing game to match the family to the image, or a drawing project where students design family flags to go along with their coat of arms.

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    Image courtesy of P Gordon on Flickr

  13. Perhaps there is no surer way of getting kids off their chairs and excited about a project than the old-fashioned method: baiting them with a prize. The National Genealogical Society sponsors an annual contest that does just that for us. That means all teachers have to do is the easy part: assigning work. The NGS heads up the Family History Writing Contest as well as the Rubincam Youth Award. Seniors (between 16-18 years) or juniors (between 13-15 years) can enter separately. Lucky winners receive a $500 cash prize, a plaque, a home-study course and membership in the Society. These generous awards go to the most impressive correctly-prepared genealogies and are meant to encourage students as the future generation of family historians by getting them in touch with their roots and educating them on how to properly store historical data. The deadline is the 31st of December.
  14. Make your own book of your family history using one of three binding styles: accordion, hot dog, or stick and elastic. The junior section of At Your Library includes links to resources that, through video, teach students how to make their books with the hope of archiving their information for safekeeping. Over a month, have students collect weekly stories from important relatives in their lives, including ones who they may know the least and ones who they may be closest to. Compile these stories on notebook paper, assemble them with a cover as shown above, and then have students design family trees to act as the front of the book. Each student will come away with a collection of vignettes of their aunties or cousins, and the chance to call themselves a book-maker while they’re at it.
  15. Introduce junior researchers to the fun of family trees and history exploration through the hands on activities at Family Tree Kids. The website is packed with colorful and interactive games and word puzzles that help young children learn about themselves and their past, and great craft ideas for making photo-magnets, doing a scavenger hunt in grandma’s attic, and more. Kids can even learn how to make a grave or tombstone rubbing here to preserve some of that priceless historical value from a deceased relative’s place of rest.
  16. Make family history lessons tie in seamlessly to your literature classes by reading books that tell the tales of family units from around the world. Scholastic has a great list of book suggestions for diverse and kid-friendly reading that will sneak bits and pieces of genealogy so effortlessly into their learning, that the kids will never notice they’re gearing up for their next family history assignment just by reading. Some of the Scholastic recommendations may even be found right at your school library, like Elvira Woodruff’s The Memory Coat, the narrative of a family who immigrates to the US through Ellis Island when Russian soldiers invade their home.
  17. What’s in name? Well, kids, just about everything. Get kids to tune into their cultural identities and family heritage by exploring their first, middle and last names to find out where they originated from, what they mean, and who else might share them. Teachers can use the reproducible What’s In A Name worksheet, offered here by Scholastic through the We Are Family curriculum, to pass out to students and have them complete at home. Ask students to discuss their name choice and reasoning behind with their parents, do research about their family name, and then offer to the class the information they discovered behind their name and its origins.
  18. Kids and teachers both love time lines. They are easy to create, great aids for visual learners, and a super way to condense a lot of valuable information into a simple format. Teachers, have your kids make a timeline of their mom’s, dad’s, or grandparent’s lives, from birth to the present. Timelines could include special memories, birthdays, holidays, important life events, moves and career changes. Then have your students create a special timeline for themselves where they can write things they may want or dream of in the future. For instance, a student could have “Graduated from college” ten years from the present on their timeline, or “Became a pro football player.” This exercise is a great way to tie dreams into reality, and gives young children a visual connection between themselves and their older relatives.
  19. Practice makes perfect. Take a break from the oral or written tradition of passing history down and try something a little more hands on with your students. Ask students to discover from parents, grandparents or extended relatives a craft, hobby, skill or trade that someone in their family has done that they don’t know how to do. It could be cursive penmanship, basket weaving, cookie making, using a typewriter, playing an instrument, or cross-stitching. Have that relative teach the student their hobby, or at least the first few steps of how it’s done. Next, have each student write an assignment beginning with the sentence, “I never knew how to ____ until my _____ taught me to…” For instance, “I never knew how to make a cat’s cradle out of yarn until my Grandmother Patricia taught me to…” and have them illustrate the process of that skill being passed on to them from their family. Bonus: Have kids think of something they might want to pass on to future generations when they are older adults.
  20. Get connected on the net. Though family history is about connecting with the past, sometimes the best way to do it is by plugging into the future. Databases, forums, photo websites and blogs like the Genealogy for Kids facebook page, MyHeritage.com, and 1000Memories.com allow kids to find out information about and create family history profiles that are safe, secure and private. Encourage your older students to get active on these kind of websites, as they are probably already using the internet and can use these tools productively and simply with a little guidance from you. If your students have histories involving immigrant parents or cross-cultural heritage, point them to Scholastic’s Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today website for virtual field trips, data, and first-hand accounts to add some details of the past to their memory banks.