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.

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