Skip to main content

What if everything we thought we knew about DNA was wrong?

For more than half a century, scientists believed they understood the basics of DNA and the genetic make-up of every living thing because of the Double Helix model first established by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Under that model, all known living organisms were made up of molecules comprised of two strands of nucleotides filled with various genetic information. As it turns out, however, scientists may have been wrong to believe that everything was a double helix construction, especially now that the first quadruple helix has been discovered.

New Scientist has a report about the discovery of the helix, discovered by a team at the University of Cambridge headed up by Shankar Balasubramanian. The four-stranded cells – currently called G-quadruplexes – have been identified in human cancer cells, and although little is currently known for sure about them, Balasubramanian’s team believes that they are transitory structures that may be related to the sub-division of cells.

Related Videos

The report explains that the G-quadruplexes were discovered “with the help of an antibody that attached exclusives to G-quadruplexes.” The team worked to intentionally stop cells from unraveling to ordinary DNA with the use of a molecule called pyridostatin which “locks” the four-stranded helices whenever they appear. With the G-quadruplexes locked in this way, the team was able to count how many were formed at each stage of cell multiplication, resulting in more that appeared during the “s-phase,” or when cells are replicating DNA prior to separation. The G-quadruplexes appeared in chromosomes and telomeres, the protective caps on chromosomes.

“I hope our discovery challenges the dogma that we really understand DNA structure because Watson and Crick solved it in 1953,” Balasubramnian told New Scientist, while also putting forward the possibility that there is something about cancer cells in particular – which divide so quickly that they may be different from other cells – that makes them particularly susceptible to the four-stranded helix. “I expect they will also exist in normal cells, but I predict that there will be differences with cancer cells,” he said. “We plan to find out whether the quadruplexes are a natural nuisance, or there by design.”

The scale of this discovery is obviously massive. Given that all life was understood to be based upon double helix DNA, it really does have the feel of the traditional everything you know is wrong shock trailed in melodramatic movies and comic books – but is also understandably important in the ongoing fight against cancer. “This research further highlights the potential for exploiting these unusual DNA structures to beat cancer,” says Cancer Research UK’s Julie Sharp, which funded Balasubramanian’s research. “The next part of this is to figure out how to target them in tumor cells.”

Editors' Recommendations

The Bento Lab somehow fits professional DNA analysis equipment into a laptop-sized box
awesome tech you cant buy yet conductive legos bento lab  compact portable affordable dna testing

Want to sequence DNA yourself? Thanks to a fully funded Kickstarter project, you may soon be able to. London-based Bento Bioworks aims to make a basic DNA analysis laboratory, which it in turn hopes will spur interest in one of science's fastest growing fields.

For sure, Bento Lab seems like something that children aboard Star Trek: The Next Generation's Enterprise-D would have played with. But it shows you how far we've come in genome research in just a few short years. Just a decade or so ago, equipment for this easily ran into the tens of thousands of dollars: today we're talking about shrinking it down to a size and price that makes it a viable science fair project.

Read more
The next big thing in science is already in your pocket
A researcher looks at a protein diagram on his monitor

Supercomputers are an essential part of modern science. By crunching numbers and performing calculations that would take eons for us humans to complete by ourselves, they help us do things that would otherwise be impossible, like predicting hurricane flight paths, simulating nuclear disasters, or modeling how experimental drugs might effect human cells. But that computing power comes at a price -- literally. Supercomputer-dependent research is notoriously expensive. It's not uncommon for research institutions to pay upward of $1,000 for a single hour of supercomputer use, and sometimes more, depending on the hardware that's required.

But lately, rather than relying on big, expensive supercomputers, more and more scientists are turning to a different method for their number-crunching needs: distributed supercomputing. You've probably heard of this before. Instead of relying on a single, centralized computer to perform a given task, this crowdsourced style of computing draws computational power from a distributed network of volunteers, typically by running special software on home PCs or smartphones. Individually, these volunteer computers aren't particularly powerful, but if you string enough of them together, their collective power can easily eclipse that of any centralized supercomputer -- and often for a fraction of the cost.

Read more
Why AI will never rule the world
image depicting AI, with neurons branching out from humanoid head

Call it the Skynet hypothesis, Artificial General Intelligence, or the advent of the Singularity -- for years, AI experts and non-experts alike have fretted (and, for a small group, celebrated) the idea that artificial intelligence may one day become smarter than humans.

According to the theory, advances in AI -- specifically of the machine learning type that's able to take on new information and rewrite its code accordingly -- will eventually catch up with the wetware of the biological brain. In this interpretation of events, every AI advance from Jeopardy-winning IBM machines to the massive AI language model GPT-3 is taking humanity one step closer to an existential threat. We're literally building our soon-to-be-sentient successors.

Read more