More than two metres of DNA is packed inside every one of your cells, encoding 20,000 or so genes, tangled into a mass of molecular spaghetti. Hidden within these strands are the instructions that tell cells when and where to turn genes on or off. But while the language of genes has become common parlance in the media, a clear understanding of what they do and how they work has not.
We know our genes make our eyes blue, our hair curly or our bellies bulge, and they control our risks of cancer, heart disease, alcoholism, and Alzheimer’s. Advances in genetic medicine hold huge promise, and as researchers discover more about molecular genetic switches and what happens when they don’t work properly, a four-dimensional picture of DNA is being built.
Rather than static strings of code, this dynamic biological library will give us new insight on DNA, the text of the cookbook of life, and help inform our medical and ethical practices for future generations. Figuring out how it all works is a major challenge for researchers around the world. And what they’re discovering is that far from genes being a fixed, deterministic blueprint, things are much more random and wobbly than anyone expected.
Science writer and broadcaster Dr Kat Arney draws on her expertise in the world of genetics and the stories in her new book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, to take a look inside our genes.