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