Say what? Science: DNA

Exploring the language of science

Say what? Science: DNA
You're more of a lemon that you'd probably like to think. [Image Credit: Kelly Slivka]
By | Posted November 23, 2011
Posted in: Audio, The Scienceline Podcast
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DNA, the genetic material of life, is perhaps the most jargon-esque of all the scientific terms that have made their way into colloquial use. The stuff is all over the public forum: it’s a player in stem cell research, obesity in America, breast cancer, and the maladies of senescence.

Most of us know our identities are largely determined by our DNA. We know we got some from our moms and some from our dads, who in turn got some from their moms and dads, and so forth. And we know this to be true for pretty much all living things.

So we have a very good abstract idea of DNA, but what is this stuff, really? When we say DNA, what are we referring to? The snappy answer is deoxyribonucleic acid, which is what DNA stands for. But if you’re not a chemist, deoxyribonucleic acid is a term that probably means nothing to you. Maybe it sounds like a particularly acute type of stomach ulcer. Or a drug you were told to stay away from by your D.A.R.E. officer in high school.

But this term has a very specific chemical meaning. It describes what DNA is as a thing, as a chemical. So what is it? To find out, I called up Dr. Debby Mowshowitz, a genetics professor at Columbia University in New York, and asked her to chop up the term “deoxyribonucleic acid” into smaller parts and tell me what they mean.

It turns out, we have more in common with lemons than most people would think.

DNA by Scienceline

(You can find the full interview with Dr. Mowshowitz on The Doppler Effect, a science and technology radio broadcast on WNYU.)

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  1. Can our DNA be by altered by cosmic waves and or solar flares?

    jonesy, November 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm
  2. Hi Jonesy,

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this good question. Though I don’t personally have expertise in this area, here’s a NASA take on the answer:

    Happy reading!



    Kelly Slivka, December 16, 2011 at 7:06 pm
  3. Wow, that’s the best explanation I ever came across.

    Question: so if the ions come off, what happens to the original molecule and what do they interact with when they come off?

    Jana Rade, December 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm
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