an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘genetics’ Category

reading matters 7

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She has her mother’s laugh, by Carl Zimmer , science author and journalist, blogger, New York Times columnist, etc etc

content hints – inheritance and heredity, genetics and epigenetics, Darwin and Galton, the Hapsburg jaw, eugenics, Hugo de Vries, Theodor Boveri, Luther Burbank, Pearl and Carol Buck, Henry Goddard, The Kallikak Family, Hitler’s racial hygiene laws, morons, the five races etc, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Emma Wolverton, PKU, chromosomal shuffling, meiosis, cultural inheritance, mitochondrial DNA, Mendel’s Law, August Weismann, germ and soma, twin studies, genetic predispositions, mongrels, Neanderthals, chimeras, exosomes, the Yandruwandha people, IVF, genomic engineering, Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, ooplasm transfers, rogue experiments, gene drives, pluripotency, ethical battlegrounds.

Written by stewart henderson

July 28, 2020 at 12:22 pm

Pinning down meiosis: sperm, mainly

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the reassortment of DNA during meiosis 1

Canto: Not very long ago I was reading Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, and he was explaining meiosis. It was exciting, because I think I understood it. Being a regular science reader I’d read about meiosis and mitosis before but I could never remember, or perhaps I never clearly knew, the difference. But this time was different, and I thought ‘Yes!’, or maybe ‘Eureka!’ sounds better, because not only did I get it, or thought I did, but I thought ‘this is a new weapon against those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. There’s a fellow-teacher at my college who actually says this, but I’ve never really confronted her on it, apart from some mutterings.

Jacinta: So please explain yourself. Meiosis and mitosis are about cell division aren’t they?

Canto: Well I can’t explain myself, but at the time I thought ‘here’a new one-word response to those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. The other one-word responses being ‘genes’, ‘genetics’, ‘genomics’ and other variants. Well okay, I can give a partial explanation. Most everyone believes in evolution, that’s why they use smart phones rather than the earlier types of mobile phones or landlines or whatever. That’s why they use dishwashers and modern washing machines and modern computers, and drive modern cars instead of a horse-and-carriage, because evolution just means progressive development. What my fellow-teacher really should be saying is she doesn’t believe in the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection from random variation, but she doesn’t say that because I strongly suspect she doesn’t have a clue what that means.

Jacinta: Right, so she doesn’t believe in the particular theory…

Canto: Which is proven by genes, the essential mechanism of random variation, which of course Darwin was completely unaware of. And by meiosis, another essential source of variety.

Jacinta: So, meiosis. It’s quite complex. Zimmer gives a brief explanation as you say, and there’s also a number of videos, from Khan Academy, Crash Course Biology and others, so let’s try to describe it for ourselves, with emphasis on variety or variation, which is the essential thing.

Canto: Mitosis, and hopefully I now will never forget this, is the cell division and replication that goes on in our bodies at every moment, and which enables us to grow from a foetus to a strapping lad or lassie, to heal wounds and even to have multiple times more neurons than old fatty Frump, maybe. It occurs among the somatic cells, and it essentially does it by replicating cells exactly, like replacing or adding to like.

Jacinta: But not exactly, otherwise we’d just be a growing blob of undifferentiated body cells, not liver, brain, blood, skin and other cells. That takes epigenetics, as I recall. Mitotically-created cells are identical as to chromosomes, but not as to expression. But anyway, meiosis. That’s how our germ cells are replicated.

Canto: Egg and sperm cells, together known as gametes. Khan Academy begins its article on meiosis with this:

meiosis in humans is a division process that takes us from a diploid cell—one with two sets of chromosomes—to haploid cells—ones with a single set of chromosomes. In humans, the haploid cells made in meiosis are sperm and eggs. When a sperm and an egg join in fertilization, the two haploid sets of chromosomes form a complete diploid set: a new genome.

All fine, though this division process is damn complicated as we’ll discover. But what interested me in Zimmer’s account was this, and I’ll quote it at length, because it’s what got me excited about variation:

In men, meiosis takes place within a labyrinth of tubes coiled within the testicles. The tube walls are lined with sperm precursor cells, each carrying two copies of each chromosome, one from the man’s mother, the other from his father. When these cells divide, they copy all their DNA, so that now they have four copies of each chromosome. Rather than drawing apart from each other, however, the chromosomes stay together. A maternal and paternal copy of each chromosome line up alongside each other. Proteins descend on them and slice the chromosomes, making cuts at precisely the same spots.

As the cells repair these self inflicted wounds, a remarkable exchange can take place. A piece of DNA from one chromosome may get moved to the same position in the other, its own place taken by its counterpart. This molecular surgery cannot be rushed. All told, a cell may need three weeks to finish meiosis. Once it’s done, its chromosomes pull away from each other. The cell then divides twice, to make four new sperm cells. Each of the four cells inherits a single copy of all 23 chromosomes. But each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Think of this last line – each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Jacinta: Yes, and there can be up to a billion sperm cells released in each ejaculate, but who’s counting? And are they all different?

Canto: Apparently so. Even the Daily Mail says so, so it must be true. And when you think of it, if there weren’t differences, each offspring born from that man’s sperm would be a clone…

Jacinta: Not necessarily – what about the egg cells?

Canto: Yes, I believe it’s the same meiosis process with them, though not quite. Anyway, there’s the same mixing of chromosomes, so the chances of any two egg cells, or I should say their chromosomal complement, being identical is extremely small.

Jacinta: So, meiosis – I’ve been trying to pin it all down, but I don’t feel I’ve succeeded. Here goes, anyway. Meiosis is a special type of reproduction, confined only to our germ cells, the sperm and egg cells. The gametes. The haploid cells. As opposed to the diploid cells which make up all the somatic or body cells we have. That’s to say, those cells reproduce differently from diploid, somatic cells. But before I try to explain the complex process of their reproduction, what about their production? Where do these haploid cells come from? Now I might answer glibly that the egg cells, also called oocytes, come from the ovaries, and the spermatozoa come from the testes, but that’s not really my question.

Canto: In fact I’m not even sure if you’ve got it right so far. The egg cell is called an ovum. An oocyte is a precursor egg cell I think. I’m not sure if it matters much, but we’re looking at the production of these gametes. Presumably the kinds of gametes we produce depends on our gender, which is determined at conception? Of course, in these gender-bending days, who knows.

Jacinta: Oh dear. Let’s try not to get confused. Assume an embryo or foetus is straightforwardly male or female, or potentially so. I seem to recall that males only start producing sperm at puberty, whereas females produce all their egg cells before that, and only have a fixed number, and egg cells are quite huge in comparison to sperm, and even compared to your average somatic cells – though some neurons have super-long axons. When females reach the stage of menstruation, that’s when they start releasing eggs.

Canto: Okay in the above quote from Zimmer, sperm precursor cells are mentioned. They’re also called spermatocytes, and the labyrinth of coiled tubes he also mentions are the seminiferous tubules. This is where the meiosis happens, in males. There are two types of spermatocyte, primary and secondary. The primary spermatocytes are diploid, and the secondary, formed after the first meiosis process (meiosis 1), are haploid.

Jacinta: To possibly confuse matters further, there’s a multi-stage process happening in those seminiferous tubules, a process called spermatogenesis. It starts with the spermatogonia (and maybe we’ll leave the spermatogonium’s existence for another post), which are processed into primary spermatocytes, then into secondary spermatocytes, then into spermatids, then to sperm.

Canto: Yes, so the first step you mention is mitotic, with diploid cells creating diploid cells, the primary spermatocytes…

Jacinta: And mitosis has those four steps or phases – PMAT, as students recall it; prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase, while meiosis has the same but in two parts, PMAT for meiosis 1 and PMAT for meiosis 2. So as we’ve already pointed out, this double-doubling process has a final result of four new cells. Now, before meiosis 1, the cells go through interphase, but I won’t detail that here. In prophase 1, chromosomes are brought together in pairs, called homologues. Their alleles are aligned together, but then this more or less random ‘crossing over’ occurs, presumably with the aid of some busy little proteins, which mixes the chromosomes up. Each homologue pair can have many of these crossovers. More mixing happens during metaphase 1, when homologue pairs, with their crossings-over, line up randomly at the metaphase plate. I’m not pretending to fully understand all this, but the main point is that the variety we find in the final product, the sperm cells, is brought about essentially during prophase and metaphase in meiosis 1 of the double cycle.

Canto: It does get me more interested in understanding meiosis more fundamentally though, as well as mitosis. The phases and the processes that bring them about, the proteins, the chromatin, the centromeres, the metaphase plate, and of course oogenesis, polar bodies and much much more.

Jacinta: Yes – I think meiosis does point to a lot of the variation in the world of organisms, but it would be hard to get those who ‘don’t believe in evolution’ to think about this and its relevance. They tend not to listen to explanations or to want to make connections.

Canto: You can give up on them or keep plugging away with the ‘what about this?’ or ‘can you explain that?’ Or demonstrate to them directly or indirectly, the results of those powerful explanations, in medicine, in astronomy, in our technology, and in our human relations.


She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, by Carl Zimmer, 2018,to%20form%20four%20daughter%20cells.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 9:18 pm

a DNA dialogue 6: Okazaki fragments, as promised

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Canto: Okay, so first off, why are Okazaki fragments so called?

Jacinta: Well as anyone would guess, they’re named after someone Japanese, in this case two, the husband and wife team Reiji and Tsuneko Okazaki, who discovered these short, discontinuously synthesised stretches of DNA nucleotides in the 1960s.

Canto: Yes their story is intriguing – tragic but also inspiring. Reiji, the husband, was born in Hiroshima and died in 1975 from leukaemia, related to the 1945 A-bomb. He was only 44. Tsuneko Okazaki continued their research and went on to make many other contributions to genetics and molecular biology, as a professor, teacher, mentor and director of scientific institutes. Her achievements would surely make her a Nobel candidate, and she’s still alive, so maybe…

Jacinta: Now the key to Okazaki fragments is this lagging strand. Its directionality means that the DNA primase, followed by the DNA polymerase, must work ‘backwards’, away from the replication fork, to add nucleotides. This means that that they have to have periodic breaks – but I’m not sure exactly why – in creating this lagging strand. So the entire replication process is described as semi-discontinuous because of this fundamental difference between the continuously created leading strand and the stop-start ‘fragmentary’ (at least briefly) lagging strand.

Canto: But we need to know why this ‘backward’ movement has to be stop-start, and I’d also like to know more about this primase and polymerase, thank you.  

Jacinta: Well the Okazakis and their team discovered this semi-discontinuous replication process in studying the replication of good old Escherichia coli, the go-to research bacterium, and it was a surprise at the time. Now, I’m looking at the explanation for this necessarily discontinuous process in Wikipedia, and I confess I don’t really understand it, but I’ll give it a go. Apparently the Okazakis ‘suggested that there is no found mechanism that showed continuous replication in the 3′ to 5′ direction, only 5′ to 3′ using DNA polymerase, a replication enzyme’, to quote from Wikipedia. So they were rather cleverly hypothesising that there must be another mechanism for the 3′ to 5′ lagging strand, which must be discontinuous. 

Canto: And another way of saying that, is that the process must be fragmentary. And they used experiments to test this hypothesis? 

Jacinta: Correct, and I won’t go into the process of testing, as if I could. It involved pulse-labelling. Don’t ask, but it has something to do with radioactivity. Anyway, the test was successful, and was supported by the discovery shortly afterwards of polynucleotide ligase, the enzyme that stitches these fragments together. Now, you want to know more about primase, polymerase, and now ligase no doubt. So here’s a bit of the low-down. DNA primase is, to confuse you, an RNA polymerase, which synthesises RNA from a DNA template. It’s a catalyst in the synthesis of a short RNA segment, known as a primer. It’s extremely important in DNA replication, because no polymerase (and you know how polymerase keeps getting associated with primase) can make anything happen without an RNA (or DNA) primer.

Canto: But why? This is getting so complicated.

Jacinta: I assure you, we’ve barely scratched the surface….

Canto: Well, Socrates was right – there’s an essential wisdom in being aware of how ignorant you are. We’ll battle on in our small way.    





Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2020 at 5:48 pm

a DNA dialogue 5: a first look at DNA replication

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schematic of ‘replisome’ structures involved in DNA replication


Jacinta: So let’s scratch some more of the surface of the subject of DNA and genetics. A useful datum to remember, the human genome consists of more than 3 billion DNA bases. We were talking last time about pyrimidines and purines, and base pairs. Let’s talk now about how DNA unzips.

Canto: Well the base pairs are connected by hydrogen bonds, and the two DNA strands, the backbones of the molecule, run in opposite, or anti-parallel, directions, from the 5′ (five prime) end to the 3′ (three prime) end. So, while one strand runs from 5′ to 3′ (the sense strand), the other runs 3′ to 5′ (the antisense strand). 

Jacinta: Right, so what we’re talking about here is DNA replication, which involves breaking those hydrogen bonds, among other things. 

Canto: Yes, so that backbone, or double backbone whatever, where the strands run anti-parallel, is a phosphate-sugar construction, and the sugar is deoxyribose, a five-carbon sugar. This sugar is oriented in one strand from 5′ to 3′, that’s to say the 5′ carbon connects to a phosphate group at one end, while the 3′ carbon connects to a phosphate group at the other end, while in the other strand the sugar is oriented in the opposite direction. 

Jacinta: Yes, and this is essential for replication. The protein called DNA polymerase should be introduced here, with thanks to Khan Academy. It adds nucleotides to the 3′ end to grow a DNA strand…

Canto: Yes, but I think that’s part of the zipping process rather than the unzipping… it’s all very complicated but we need to keep working on it…

Jacinta: Yes, according to Khan Academy, the first step in this replication is to unwind the tightly wound double helix, which occurs through the action of an enzyme called topoisomerase. We could probably do a heap of posts on each of these enzymes, and then some. Anyway, to over-simplify, topoisomerase acts on the DNA such that the hydrogen bonds between the nitrogenous bases can be broken by another enzyme called helicase.

Canto: And that’s when we get to add nucleotides. So we have the two split strands, one of which is a 3′ strand, now called the leading strand, the other a 5′ strand, called the lagging strand. Don’t ask.

Jacinta: The leading strand is the one you add nucleotides to, creating another strand going in the 5′ to 3′ direction. This apparently requires an RNA primer. Don’t ask. DNA primase provides this RNA primer, and once this has occurred, DNA polymerase can start adding nucleotides to the 3′ end, following the open zipper, so to speak.

Canto: The lagging strand is a bit more complex though, as you apparently can’t add nucleotides in that other direction, the 5′ direction, not with any polymerase no how. So, according to Khan, ‘biology’ adds primers (don’t ask) made up of several RNA nucleotides.

Jacinta: Again, according to Khan, the DNA primase, which works along the single strand, is responsible for adding these primers to the lagging strand so that the polymerase can work ‘backwards’ along that strand, adding nucleotides in the right, 3′, direction. So it’s called the lagging strand because it has to work through this more long, drawn-out process.

Canto: Yes, and apparently, this means that you have all these fragments of DNA, called Okazaki fragments. I’m not sure how that works…

Jacinta: Let’s devote our next post on this subject entirely to Okazaki fragments. That could clarify a lot. Or not.

Canto: Okay, let’s. Goody goody gumdrops. In any case, these fragments can be kind of sewn together using DNA ligase, presumably another miraculous enzyme. And the RNA becomes DNA. Don’t ask. I’m sure all will be revealed with further research and investigation.


Leading and lagging strands in DNA replication (Khan Academy video)

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2020 at 10:59 pm

Epigenetics 8: some terms

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Histone, with DNA wrapping, rendered by the Protein Data Bank (PDB)
Histone, with DNA wrapping, rendered by the Protein Data Bank (PDB)


The gene is not more ‘basic’ than the organism, or closer to ‘the essence of life’, whatever that means. Organisms have DNA codes, and they maintain external forms and behaviours. Both are equal and fundamental components of being. DNA does not even build an organism directly, but must work through complex internal environments of embryological development, and external environments of surrounding conditions. We will not know the core and essence of humanity when we complete the human genome project. 

Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Magnolias from Moscow’, in Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1996

I remember ages ago promising that I’d start every blog piece with a quote, then I more or less immediately forgot about it. Anyway the above quote kind of refers to epigenetics, and anticipates, in a way, the disappointment that many have felt about the human genome project and its not-quite-revelatory nature. As we learn more about the complexities of epigenetics, more about the relationships between genotype and phenotype will be revealed, but the process will surely be very gradual, though relentless. But I can’t talk, knowing so little. In this post, I’ll look at a very few key terms to help orient myself in this vast field. Not all will be specifically related to epigenetics, but to the whole field of DNA and genetics. 

nucleosome: described as ‘the basic structural form of DNA packaging in eukaryotes’, it’s a segment of DNA wound round a histone ‘octamer’, a set of eight histones in a cubical structure. All of this is for fitting DNA into nuclei. Nucleosomes are believed to carry epigenetic info which modifies their core histones, and their positions in the genome are not random. Each nucleosome core particle consists of approximately 146 base pairs. 

chromatin: a complex of DNA and protein, which packages DNA protectively, condensing the whole into a tight structure. Histones are essential components of chromatin. Chromatin structure is affected by methylation and acetylation of particular proteins, which in turn affects gene expression. 

nucleotides: the basic building blocks of DNA and RNA, they consist of a nucleoside and a phosphate group. A nucleoside itself is a nitrogenous base (also known as a nucleobase) and a five-carbon sugar ribose (a ribose – these explanations always need more explaining – is a simple sugar, the natural form of which is D-ribose, and which comes in various structural forms). DNA and RNA are nucleic acid polymers made up of nucleotide monomers. 

nucleobase: a nitrogenous base (e.g. adenine, cytosine, thymine, guanine, and uracil which replaces thymine in RNA), the fundamental units of our genetic code. Also simply known as a base. 

base pairs: a base pair, in DNA, is one of the pairings adenine-thymine (A-T) or cytosine-guanine (C-G). They are pyrimidine-purine pairings. Adenine and guanine are purines, the other two pyrimidines. Due to their structure pyrimidines always pair with purines. 

CpG islands: regions of DNA with a high frequency of CpG (C-G) sites, i.e. sites where a cytosine nucleotide is followed by a guanine nucleotide in linear sequence in a particular direction. 

histones: highly alkaline proteins, the chief proteins of chromatin, and the means of ordering DNA into nucleosomes. There are four core histones, H2A, H2B, H3 and H4. These form an octamer structure, around which approximately 146 base pairs are wound. 

Obviously, I’m very much a beginner at comprehending all this stuff, but I note that the number of videos on epigenetics seems to increase almost daily, which is raising my skepticism more than anything. I try to be selective in checking out these videos and other info on the topic, as there’s always this human tendency to claim super-solutions to our problems, as in super-foods and super-fitness regimes and the like. I’m more interested in the how of things, which is always a more complicated matter. Other information sources tend to assume knowledge or to skate over obvious complexities in a facile manner, and then of course there’s the ‘problem’ of being a dilettante, who wants to learn more about areas of scientific and historical knowledge often far removed from each other, and time’s running out, and we keep forgetting…

So anyway, I’ll keep plodding along, because it’s all quite interesting.  

Written by stewart henderson

February 23, 2020 at 12:20 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 7: more problems, and ICRs

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-02-02-at-10.11.35-pm-1.pngthe only image I can find that I really understand


In the previous post in this series I wrote about the connection between two serious disorders, Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome, their connection to a missing small section of chromosome 15, and how they’re related to parental inheritance. These syndromes can sometimes also be traced back to uniparental disomy, in which the section of chromosome 15 is intact, but both copies are inherited from the mother (resulting in PWS) or the father (resulting in AS).

So the key here is that this small section of chromosome 15 needs to be inherited in the correct way because of the imprinting that comes with it. To take it to the genetic level, UBE3A is a gene which is only expressed from the maternal copy of chromosome 15. If that gene is missing in the maternal copy, or if, due to uniparental disomy, both copies of the chromosome are inherited from the father, UBE3A protein won’t be produced and symptoms of Angelman syndrome will appear. Similarly, PWS will develop if a certain imprinted gene or genes aren’t inherited from the father. Other imprinting disorders have been found, for example, one that leads to Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, though the mechanism of action is different, in that both copies of a gene on chromosome 11 are switched on when only the paternal copy should be expressed. This results in abnormal growth (too much growth) in the foetus. It too has an ‘opposite’ syndrome, Silver-Russell syndrome, in which the relevant protein expression is reduced, resulting in retarded growth and dwarfism. 

But now to the question of exactly how genes are switched on and off, or expressed and repressed. DNA methylation, briefly explained in my first post on this topic, is essential to this. Methyl groups are carbon-hydrogen compounds which can be bound to a gene to switch it off, but here’s where I start to get confused. I’ll quote Carey and try to make sense of it:

… it may be surprising to learn that it is often not the gene body that is methylated. The part of the gene that codes for protein is epigenetically broadly the same when we compare the maternal and paternal copies of the chromosome. It’s the region of the chromosome that controls the expression of the gene that is differently methylated between the two genomes.

N Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011 p140

The idea, I now realise, is that there’s a section of the chromosome that controls the part of the gene that codes for the protein and it’s this region that’s differently methylated. Such regions are called imprinting control regions (ICRs). Sometimes this is straightforward, but it can get extremely complicated, with whole clusters of imprinted genes on a stretch of chromosome, being expressed from the maternally or paternally derived chromosomes, and not simply through methylation. An ICR may operate over a large region, creating ‘roadblocks’, keeping different sets of genes apart, and affecting thousands of base-pairs, not always in the same way. Repressed genes may come together in a ‘chromatin knot’, while other, activated genes from the same region form separate bundles.

Imprinting is a feature of brain cells – something which, as of the writing of Carey’s book (2011), is a bit of a mystery. Not so surprising is the number of expressed imprinted genes in the placenta, a place where competing paternal-maternal demands are played out. As to what is going on in the brain, Carey writes this:

Professor Gudrun Moore of University College London has made an intriguing suggestion. She has proposed that the high levels of imprinting in the brain represents a post-natal continuation of the war of the sexes. She has speculated that some brain imprints are an attempt by the paternal genome to promote behaviour in young offspring that will stimulate the mother to continue to drain her own resources, for example by prolonged breastfeeding.

N Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011. pp141-2

This sounds pretty amazing, but it’s a new epigenetic world we’re exploring. I’ll explore more of it next time.


The epigenetics revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Epigenetics, video: SciShow

Written by stewart henderson

February 2, 2020 at 10:33 pm

a DNA dialogue 3: two anti-parallel strands

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but why the twist? – we don’t know yet

Jacinta: Ok so these two strands of DNA are described as anti-parallel. Is this just intended to confuse us?

Canto: Apparently not, in fact it’s quite essential. The useful q&a site Quora has good info on this, and understanding it in all its complexity should help us to understand DNA general – it’s one of a thousand useful entry points.

Jacinta: Yes, and I’ll try to explain. It became clear to us last time that the strands or ribbons twisted round in a double helix, called the backbone of the molecule, are made from phosphate and deoxyribose sugar, covalently bonded together. That means tightly bonded. Between the two strands, connecting them like ladder rungs, are nitrogenous bases (this is new to us). That’s adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, bonded together – A always to T, and C to G – with weak hydrogen bonds. We’ll have to look at why they must be paired in this way later.

Canto: It’s called Chargaff’s base pairing rule, which doesn’t tell us much.

Jacinta: And, according to a respondent from Quora, ‘the two strands of DNA are anti-parallel to each other. One of them is called leading strand, the other is lagging strand’. But I don’t quite get this. How are there two strands of DNA? I thought there was one strand with two sugar-phosphate backbones, and a rung made up of two – nitrogenous nucleobases? – weakly connected by hydrogen bonds.

Canto: I think the idea is there are two strands, with the attached bases, one next to another on the strand, and weakly attached to another base, or set of bases each attached to another phosphate-sugar backbone. As to why the whole thing twists, rather than just being a straight up-and-down ladder thing, I’ve no idea. Clearly we’re a couple of dopey beginners.

Jacinta: Well, many of the Quora respondents have been teaching molecular biology for years or are working in the field, and just skimming through, there’s a lot be learned. For now, being anti-parallel is essential for DNA replication – which makes it essential to DNA’s whole purpose if I can call it that. I’ll also just say that the sugars in the backbone have directionality, so that the way everything is structured, one strand has to go in the opposite direction for the replication to work. If for example the strands were facing in the same direction, then the base on one side would connect to a hydrophobic sugar (a good thing) but the base on the other side would be facing a hydrophilic phosphate (a bad thing). Each base needs to bond with a sugar – that’s to say a carbon atom, sugar being carbon-based – so one strand needs to be an inversion of the other. That’s part of the explanation.

Canto: Yes, I find many of the explanations are more like descriptions – they assume a lot of knowledge. For example one respondent says that the base pairs follow Chargaff’s rule and that means purines always pair up with pyrmidines. Not very helpful, unless maybe you’re rote-learning for a test. It certainly doesn’t explain anti-parallelism.

Jacinta: Well, although we don’t fully understand it yet, it’s a bit clearer. Anti-parallelism is an awkward term because it might imply, to the unwary, something very different from being parallel. The strands are actually parallel but facing in the opposite direction, and when you think about the structure, the reason for that becomes clearer. And imagining those backbone strands facing in the same direction immediately shows you the problem, I think.

Canto: Yes and for more insight into all that, we’ll need to look more closely at pyrmidines and purines and the molecular structure of the backbone, and those bases, and maybe this fellow Chargaff.


Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2020 at 2:38 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 5: mouse experiments and chromosome 11

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something new, since Carey’s book was published – a healthy mouse, from entirely maternal DNA, with healthy offspring – and in 2018 a healthy bi-paternal mouse was created


So we were looking at how we – mammals amongst others – are engaged in a kind of battle for the best way to ensure our genetic survival into the future, beyond our insignificant little selves. This battle begins in the very early phase of life, as zygotes multiply to form a blastocyst. 

Remember from my last post on this topic, the male mammal is interested in the offspring above all else. He’s even happy to sacrifice the mother for the sake of the child – after all there’s plenty more fish in the sea (or mammals in the – you know what I mean). The female, on the other hand, is more interested in self-preservation than in this pregnancy. She wants more than one chance to pass on her genes.

So, by the blastocyst stage, cells have differentiated into those that will form the placenta and those that will form the embryo itself. Experiments on mice have helped to elucidate this male-female genetic struggle. Mouse zygotes were created which contained only paternal DNA and only maternal DNA. These different zygotes were implanted into the uterus of mice. As expected, the zygotes didn’t develop into living mice – it takes DNA from both sexes for that. The zygotes did develop though, but with serious abnormalities, which differed depending on whether they were ‘male’ or ‘female’. In those in which the chromosomes came from the mother, the placental tissues were particularly underdeveloped. For those with the male chromosomes, the embryo was in a bad way, but the placental tissues not so much.

In short, these and other experiments suggested that the male chromosomes favoured placental development while the female chromosomes favoured the embryo. Thus, the male chromosomes are ‘aiming’ to build up the placenta to drain as many nutrients as possible from the mother and feed them into the foetus. The female chromosomes have the opposite aim, resulting in a ‘fine balance’ in the best scenarios.

Further work in this area has identified particular chromosomes responsible for these developments, and some of the epigenetic factors involved. For example, mouse chromosome 11 is important for offspring development. When the offspring inherits a copy of chromosome 11 from each parent, the offspring will be of normal size. If both copies come from the mother it will abnormally small, while if both come from the father it will be abnormally large. These experiments were carried out on inbred mice with identical DNA. Nessa Carey summarises:

If you sequenced both copies of chromosome 11 in any of the three types of offspring, they would be exactly the same. They would contain the same millions of A, C, G and T base-pairs, in the same order. But the two copies of chromosome 11 do clearly behave differently at a functional level, as shown by the different sizes of the different types of mice. Therefore there must be epigenetic differences between the maternal and paternal copies of chromosome 11.

So this means that chromosome 11 is an imprinted chromosome – or at least certain sections of it. This is the same for other chromosomes, some of which aren’t imprinted at all. But how is it done? That’s the complex biochemical stuff, which I’ll try to elucidate in the next post on this topic.

Footnote: the photo above shows a bi-maternal mouse with healthy offspring, and further work in deleting imprinted genetic regions has allowed researchers to create healthy bi-paternal mice too. There’s a fascinating account of it here.


Nessa Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

January 19, 2020 at 12:26 pm

A DNA dialogue 1: the human genome

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what genomics tells us

Canto: I’m often confused when I try to get my head around all the stuff about genes and DNA, and genomes and alleles and chromosomes, and XX and XY, and mitosis and meiosis, and dominant and recessive and so on. I’d like to get clear, if only I could.

Jacinta: That’s a big ask, and of course we’re both in the same boat. So let’s use the magical powers of the internet to find answers. For example, here’s something that confuses me. The Human Genome project, which ended around the year 2000, involved a mapping of the whole human genome, and that includes coding and non-coding genes, and I think it was found to contain 26,000 or so – what? Letters? Genes? Coding genes? Anyway there’s a number of questions there, but they’re not the questions that confuse me. I don’t get that we now, apparently, have worked out the genetic code for all humans, but each of us has different DNA. How, exactly, does our own individual DNA relate to the genome that determines the whole species? Presumably it’s some kind of subset?

Canto: Hmmm. This article from the Smithsonian tells us that the genetic difference between human individuals is very tiny, at around 0.1%. We humans differ from bonobos and chimps, two lineages of apes that separated much more recently, by about 1.2%….

Jacinta: Yes, yes, but how, with this tiny difference between us, are we able to use DNA forensically to identify individuals from a DNA sample?

Canto: Well, perhaps this Smithsonian article provides a clue. It says that the 1.2% difference between us and chimps reflects a particular way of counting. I won’t go into the details here but apparently another way of counting shows a 4-5% difference.

Jacinta: We probably do need to go into the details in the end, but clearly this tiny .1% difference between humans is enough for us to determine the DNA as coming from one individual rather than 7 to 8 billion others. Strangely enough, I can well believe that, given that we can detect gravitational waves and such – obviously using very different technology.

Canto: Yeah the magic of science. So the Human Genome Project was officially completed in April 2003. And here’s an interesting quote from Wikipedia:

The “genome” of any given individual is unique; mapping the “human genome” involved sequencing a small number of individuals and then assembling these together to get a complete sequence for each chromosome. Therefore, the finished human genome is a mosaic, not representing any one individual.

Of course it would have to be a mosaic, but how can it represent the whole human genome when it’s only drawn from a small number? And who were these individuals, how many, and where from?

Jacinta: The Wikipedia article does give more info on this. It tells us that the project isn’t really finished, as we’ve developed techniques and processes for faster and deeper analyses. As to your questions, when the ‘finished’ sequencing was announced, the mosaic was drawn from a small number of anonymous donors, all of European origin.

Canto: But we all originated from Africa anyway, so…

Jacinta: So maybe recent ‘origin’ isn’t so important. Anyway, that first sequencing is now known as the ‘reference genome’, but after that they did sequence the genomes of ‘multiple distinct ethnic groups’, so they’ve been busy. But here are some key findings, to finish off this first post. They found some 22,300 protein-coding genes, as well as a lot of what they used to call junk DNA – now known as non-coding DNA. That number is within the mammalian range for DNA, which no doubt surprised many. Another blow for human specialness? And they also found that there were many more segmental duplications than expected. That’s to say, sections of DNA that are almost identically repeated.We’ll have to explore the significance of this as we go along.

Canto: Yes, that’s enough for starters. Apparently our genome has over 3 billion nucleobase pairs, about which more later no doubt.


Written by stewart henderson

January 13, 2020 at 11:48 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 4: the male-female thing

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Gametes are gametes because of epigenetic modifications in their pro-nuclei, but they have to lose these modifications, or transform them, when they come together to form zygotes. The male pro-nucleus DNA methylation is stripped away immediately after sperm penetrates egg. The egg pronucleus undergoes the same process, but more gradually. It’s like a wiping away of epigenetic memory, creating totipotency, which becomes a more limited pluripotency as the blastocyst, with its inner cell mass (ICM), forms. 

The ICM cells begin differentiating through the regulation of some key genes. For example, a gene codes for a protein that switches on a set of genes, which code for proteins in a cascading effect. But it’s not quite a matter of switching genes on or off, it’s rather more complex. The process is called gene reprogramming, and it’s of course done effortlessly during every reproductive cycle. Artificial reprogramming of the kind carried out by Yamanaka and others, an essential part of cloning, hasn’t come close to this natural process that goes on in mammals and other species every day.

Clearly, though the epigenetic reprogramming for the female pronucleus is different from that carried out more swiftly in the male. As Carey puts it, ‘the pattern of epigenetic modifications in sperm is one that allows the male pronucleus to be reprogrammed relatively easily.’ Human researchers haven’t been particularly successful in reprogramming an adult nucleus by various methods, such as transferring it to a fertilised egg or treating it with the four genes isolated by Yamanaka. The natural process of gene reprogramming eliminates most of the epigenetic effects accumulated in the parent genes, but as the reprogramming is a different process in the male and female pro-nucleus, this shows that they aren’t functionally equivalent. There is a ‘parent-of-origin effect’. Experiments done on mice to explore this effect found that DNA methylation, an important form of chromatin modification (and the first one discovered), was passed on to offspring by the female parent. That’s to say, DNA from the female was more heavily methylated than that from the male. Carey describes the DNA as ‘bar-coded’ as coming from the male or the female. The common term for this is imprinting, and it’s entirely epigenetic.

Imprinting has been cast by Carey, and no doubt others, as an aspect of the ‘battle of the sexes’. This battle may well be imprinted in the pronuclei of the fertilised egg. Here’s how Carey puts the two opposing positions:

Male: This pregnant female is carrying my genes in the form of this foetus. I may never mate with her again. I want my foetus to get as big as possible so that it has the greatest chance of passing on my genes.

Female: I want this foetus to pass on my genes. But I don’t want it to be at the cost of draining me so much that I never reproduce again. I want more than this one chance to pass on my genes.

So there’s a kind of balance that has developed in we eutherian mammals, in a battle to ensure that neither sex gains the upper hand. Further experiments on mice in recent times have explored how this battle is played out epigenetically. I’ll look at them in the next post in this series.


The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

January 9, 2020 at 10:50 am