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DNA: The Map to Human Existence

29 May 2019
It’s not uncommon for stories to expose you to concepts previously unknown or misunderstood.  This one, however, delivered several.

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John Webb (@journojohn) began his career in journalism as a wide-eyed cub reporter at news agency Network Radio News in 1997. He joined Talk Radio 702 in 1999 as a reporter and news reader and was assigned to major news stories. John then joined Carte Blanche in 2004, where he presented current affairs programmes from the field. He spent four years with European sports broadcaster Setanta Sports as a presenter and producer, returning to South Africa in 2013 to take up a six-month contract as host of "Talk at Nine" on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. In March 2014, John was the Pretoria field anchor for the highly successful Oscar Pistorius Trial.

There’s a town called Ballydehob on the south west coast of Ireland.  It’s one of those places that takes a long time to get to, no matter how close you think you are.  There’s a pub on the main street called Levi’s Corner House run by a young man with musical ambitions.  Inside are two counters: one where you order a pint, and the other behind which are arranged a variety of tinned foods and vegetable oils.  Drinking is a deliberate act of instant gratification, but I assumed the groceries were only ever bought by mistake. The latter a likely result of the former.

On live music nights, bands set up behind the non-perishables counter, an antique weighing scale at one side and a wall of framed photographs at the other.  The performance area was abandoned on the night I was there, but I’d arrived just minutes before closing time – a concept only ever loosely applied in Levi’s world.  The queue at the pints counter was proof of that. And Levi seemed delighted by the prospect of a bumper night’s takings as he shimmied between the taps and till.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I found myself swept into a room at the rear of the pub which, on closer inspection revealed itself to be Levi’s lounge.  Pints could be consumed while perusing the wedding and honeymoon pics atop his mantlepiece.  We were asked to keep our voices down so as not to wake the baby upstairs.  It was, as you can no doubt sense, a little surreal.

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I struck up a conversation with an elderly man wearing maroon trousers, a paisley shirt and waistcoat.  Now, they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but, in this instance, it would have been both appropriate and accurate.  If his trousers clashed with his shirt, he had a personality that matched both.  What I’m trying to say is that it takes a unique character to pay good money for paisley.  We spoke at length, and he was uproariously funny.  But, two people could not have appeared more different.

Pay attention now, here comes the segue, because hard as it might be to believe sometimes humans – for the most part – are 99.9% the same.  That is to say, the code in our genetic material, known as our genome, is replicated almost precisely from one human to the next.  Well, when I say almost precisely, the sheer length of that code means the 0.1% still represents about 3 million differences -probably more.  Those differences account for things like eye-colour, height, athletic ability, and certain diseases.  But our similarities far outnumber our differences. 

It was a poignancy I hadn’t expected when I started researching our story on gene mapping.  I’d heard the figure previously but, somehow, understanding the science behind it made it more significant.  It’s not uncommon for stories to expose you to concepts previously unknown or misunderstood.  This one, however, delivered several.

Here’s another: if you unravelled the strands of DNA in just one of our cells and arranged them end-to-end, they would stretch for two metres.  That’s the height of a tall rugby player.

But, to quote a late-night commercial script, that’s not all: our bodies contain about 37-trillion cells.  If you removed all the DNA strands in all our cells and arranged them in the same way, they would stretch from one end of our Solar System to the other and back.  That’s right, twice the diameter of the Solar System.  I don’t know about you, but stats like that make me want to lie down.

One more? Okay, try this one for size.  Prior to the successful sequencing of the human Genome, most scientists estimated that humans had up to 100 thousand genes.  Put very simply (and at the risk of being corrected by the biologists among you), these are the areas of DNA involved with “coding” or “programming” our cells.  However, it turned out we only have about 24 thousand.  That’s fewer than a laboratory mouse which has 30 thousand and rice which has 51 thousand.

All of which, fills me with a mixture of envy and admiration for those among us able to fathom that level of scientific complexity and use it to for humanity’s benefit.  Like the good folk at GeneMap, an initiative at UCT.  Their research into hearing impairment and Sickle Cell Disease is both ground-breaking and vital.  They are young, effervescent and hugely intelligent.  With resources and other support, they will ensure South Africa and the broader continent don’t fall behind in the race for personalised, genomic medicine.

And perhaps, along the way, they’ll discover the gene responsible for impulse buying and edit out the desire for paisley.