Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DNA, genomes, data and hip-hop #i3rgu

The 2nd day at the i3 #i3rgu conference in Aberdeen, Scotland and Adam Rutherford has given the 2nd keynote, on DNA, genomes, data and hip-hop. I was sitting at the back of the room, so I could get out quickly to chair a session immediately afterwards: you can see the speaker dimly standing at the front of the room and I thought I should photograph his website in the foreground, to give you a better idea of what Adam Rutherford looks like. He forecast his talk as "tales from biology" and, these revolved around genetics and DNA. I will just pluck a few things from those tales.
He talked about human beings as being excellent information stores, and the ways in which DNA stored, encoded and replicated information. Random things I learned include:
- We have fewer genes than rice, flatworms and bananas.
- You can accurately predict the type of earwax your child will have (but not his/her eye colour).
- There is a genetically modified goat which lactates spider thread.
- More seriously, text has been encoded in DNA (I found a story about it here: ) At the moment this is a clumsy storage medium (it is complex storing and retrieving the data): however, DNA is a format that will continue to be stable and readable, so it can't be dismissed as a stunt.
He also talked about the large amount of misinformation that is associated with reporting on genetics: the stories that say that a "gene has been discovered which predicts ...". This misinformation is not confined to the less respected news stories e.g. ("scientists discover height gene" - they didn't).
Rutherford mentioned Synthetic biology, "the application of engineering principles in the re/design of natural biological systems for useful purposes" where scientists engage more obviously in information storage, manipulation and processing.
By the way, the link with "hip hop" is sampling, the family trees of music, how samples can enter mainstream culture, and the legal ramifications of this kind of genetic recombination.

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