DNA

Lab Notes: A New Class Brings CRISPR to the People

The announcement came in June. Berkeley Extension, the continuing education arm of UC Berkeley, was offering its first-ever introductory courseCRISPR Genome Editing: From Biology to Technology—on the revolutionary new tool that allows scientists to make precise edits in the genome. A lab and lecture course on CRISPR for anyone who has the interest (and money) to enroll? What a crazy idea. It seemed a bit like offering a workshop on how to enrich plutonium.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Meet CRISPR: Humanity’s Shiny New Tool

One of biology’s wilder facts is that we’re all family. You and me, sure, but also me and a mushroom. Triceratops shared genes with you. So does the virus that makes you cough, and a rosebush. Bacteria left us on the tree of life around 2.7 billion years ago, but the wet world they came from is still ours: One code runs all of life. The same proteins that imprint memories in your neurons, for example, do so in octopi, ravens, and sea slugs. This genetic conservation means tricks from one species can be hijacked. If you stick a jellyfish gene in a monkey, it’ll glow green.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Kiss Me, I’m 61.5% Irish

THE YEAR HAS BEEN A JUMBLE FOR ME. Long story short: I was Portuguese, then I wasn’t, then I was again.

It all started after my wife and I spat in vials and mailed the samples off to a laboratory, where our DNA was extracted from the skin cells that had sloughed off into our saliva. Many thousands of DNA segments were read and analyzed, and the results returned via email.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Intolerable Genius: Berkeley’s Most Controversial Nobel Laureate

IN THE SUMMER OF 1984 the senior scientists of Cetus Corp., a Berkeley biotech company, found themselves in a bind. One of their employees, a promising young scientist named Kary Mullis, had dreamed up a technique to exponentially replicate tiny scraps of DNA. He called it polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and if it worked it would change the world and likely earn Cetus a mountain of money. The only problem was Mullis was an interpersonal wrecking ball.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Blood Work: The Citizen Sleuth Using Genealogy to ID the Dead

ON APRIL 24, 1981, THE BODY OF A YOUNG WOMAN with auburn braids and a fringed jacket was discovered off the side of a road in Troy, Ohio.

She had been strangled to death only hours before. Authorities took DNA samples but couldn’t find a match for the woman. For decades, she was described only by the clothes on her back: “Buckskin Girl.”

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Is DNA Testing of Immigrants a Threat to Us All?

In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a program called Rapid DNA testing—subjecting families crossing the Mexican border to cheek swab tests, which produce extensive DNA profiles in less than two hours that are entered into a national criminal database. The initial pilot program, begun this summer, was ostensibly rolled out to identify “fraudulent family units”—groups of children and adults who are not blood-related but were trying to achieve special immigration status—and prosecute them for fraud.

Meet Frances Arnold, Teenage Rebel Turned Nobel Laureate

At 15, she was a class-skipping, catch-me-if-you-can maverick hitchhiking to D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. Looking back on those years now, Frances Arnold says, “Fifteen is one of those terrifying ages, where you’re frustrated because you know something’s wrong, but you have no idea how to fix it. So I did what I could, which is protest.

“But as I’ve gone through my life,” she continues, “I know that it’s my responsibility to fix it. I’m much better at fixing things than protesting.”

She pauses.

From the Spring 2019 issue of California.

The Ethics of Hunting Down John Doe

Last month’s arrest of NorCal Rapist suspect, Roy Charles Waller, sent shockwaves across the Cal campus and the state. Waller, after all, was a longtime employee of UC Berkeley’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, and his capture resulted from a new forensic tool that promises to solve many cold cases: open-source genealogical databases.

Gird Your Genes: What DNA Matching Might Mean for Your Privacy

The recent capture of a suspect for the notorious Golden State Killer crimes was a vindication of both diligent detective work and modern technology. More than four decades after the first incident attributed to the GSK, which ultimately tallied at least 12 murders, 45 rapes, and more than 100 home burglaries, 72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested in his California home.

The Secret of the Sea Nomads

The Bajau people, commonly known as “sea nomads,” live in coastal regions of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They spend some 60 percent of their working hours in the sea, foraging for food at depths of up to 230 feet below the surface. Bajau divers are known to hold their breath for several minutes at a time.

How do they do it? Researchers think they have found the key: larger spleens.

Findings like these are a reminder that humans, like all animals, are products of evolution.

From the Summer 2018 Our Town issue of California.

Eyes on the Octopus: In Trio of Studies, Berkeley Scientists Strive to Make Sense of the Cephalopods

It is a curious thing to consider that UC Berkeley, a school notably lacking a marine biology program, has produced not one, not two, but three published studies on the venerable octopus within the last year. But then octopuses, too, are curious to consider. They have three hearts; blue, copper-based blood; regenerating tentacles; and a level of sentience unique among invertebrates.

From the Fall 2016 The Greatest Show On Earth issue of California.

Do-It-Yourself Biology? Messing Around with DNA Increasingly a Garage-Band Venture

Silicon is so passé. Those who are truly au courant in the coding world are working with carbon—specifically DNA, that most ancient and elegant of codes. Such biohacking is central to the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology, a term that somehow seems a little threatening to many of us who are the products of the old fashioned kind of biology that’s been around since the planet first managed to gin up a few primitive prokaryotes 3.5 billion years ago.

The Immortality Connundrum: Our Mortality May Be What Saves Us From Cancer

Want to live forever? Be a tumor. We may eventually download analogs of our brains into computers and thus achieve a certain kind of immortality, but dramatically extending the functionality of the human body is looking problematic. Cancer cells, on the other hand, can propagate endlessly.

Which once again shows that life is inherently unfair, even in death. Why should insensate and destructive carcinomas enjoy the boon of immortality while we sentient human beings are preordained to decline and ultimate oblivion?

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