Say what? Science: DNA

Exploring the language of science

November 23, 2011

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.)

About the Author

Kelly Slivka

Kelly Slivka finished up her B.A. in English and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, after which she traded amber waves of grain for actual waves of water. The past three years, she’s been stalking endangered whales on the East Coast for various conservation and research institutions, a profession that has given her plenty of fodder for fascinating science writing, but no feasible outlet. Now, through NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program she’s moved on to stalking all things new and cool in science and sharing it with, well, everyone! You can learn more about Kelly on her website,, and follow her on Twitter @k_sliv.



jonesy says:

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

Kelly Slivka says:

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!



Jana Rade says:

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?

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