Tomorrow is National DNA Day, in commemoration of the 1953 discovery of the molecule’s double helix structure and the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project. But while the focus of the government-conceived holiday is on the DNA of one familiar species, homo sapiens, there are some other genomes worth considering on a day devoted to nucleic acid.
The Human Genome Project, as I learned researching for an interview on genetic testing with Nancy Spinner, began in 1990 and was originally planned to take 15 years. Advances in sequencing technology moved so quickly that the project finished two years early. In 2005, the NSF, USDA, and DOE funded a project at Washington University and Iowa State University to sequence the maize genome. The two institutions published a draft of the genome in February of this year.
News of the corn genetic sequencing arrived the same week the Svalbard Seed Vault opened in Norway—a coincidence I noted on Science Progress. Each project represents different but complementary approaches to plant genetic resources: the sequencing an understanding and control over biological materials, the seed bank a commitment to the preservation of biodiversity.
But in light of some of the most complicated global resource problems of late—soaring energy and food prices, and competition between crops grown for food, fuel, and feed—DNA day could be a moment to reflect on the sustainability of genetic resources beyond our own.
The Senate today passed the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act, designed to protect patients from abuses of their genetic information by insurance companies or employers. Cutting people from insurance rolls is one possible scary use of genetic information that is getting easier to obtain. Another is the reckless creation of synthetic organisms (like nasty pathogens) from readily available cassettes of DNA—which enabled the construction of the first artificial bacteria genome at the Craig Venter Institute just a few months ago.
But what does Venter plan to do with those engineered microbes? Make biofuels.
The point being that understanding and celebrating achievements in genetics isn’t just going to make us healthier. Genetics already plays a significant role in determining what we eat—and that role will only increase—but DNA will also shape the fuel we use to move that food around.