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Astonishing DNA facts


Wall engraving from the Temple of Luxor, Egypt, showing anatomically correct spermatozoa.

Wall engraving from the Temple of Luxor, Egypt, showing anatomically correct spermatozoa.

Okay, you might ask what this has to do with environmental protection or recycling, but I reserve the right to ponder about anything that interests me in my online column! You can file this under “Guy’s wacky science” articles if you like. But I think you’ll enjoy this…

Let’s face it, though our egos tell us otherwise, we’re really just dreaming robots for DNA to perpetuate itself into the future.

Not convinced? Then consider some of the astonishing facts I recently encountered while reading The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by Jeremy Narby.

While we have all heard about DNA, Narby’s assembly of certain facts in one place leaves a powerful — and potentially life changing — impression.

To start with, a human body is comprised of 100 thousand billion cells — an amazing number.

Inside each cell there’s a nucleus, in which our DNA resides.

The DNA contained in the nucleus of a human cell is two yards long. This is amazing given how small the cell and nucleus are.

The nucleus of a cell is equivalent to two-millionths of a pinhead. Inside the nucleus, DNA’s extreme length is coiled into infinitesimal smallness.

The nucleus of each cell contains DNA that is only 10 atoms wide — so thin that it’s not visible to the human eye even under a powerful microscope, because it’s 120 times narrower than the smallest wavelength of visible light.

The DNA thread is a billion times longer than its own width, roughly equivalent to your little finger stretching from Paris to Los Angeles.

Added together, inside each human body there are 125 billion miles of DNA! This corresponds to 70 round trips between Saturn and the Sun, or enough to wrap around the earth five million times.

This ancient biotechnology arrived on our earth some four million years ago, and scientists say it contains over a hundred trillion times as much information by volume as our most sophisticated information storage devices.

DNA is comprised of a genetic code of just four letters (A,G,C,T) that combine in different ways to create every different kind of cell in a human body, and also all living creatures.

DNA is the same in all living beings, including mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects and plants.

It’s arguable that all life is simply a support and transmission system for DNA to continue itself from the past into the future. The petals of a rose, your brain and the coat of a virus — every living thing — is built out of proteins made up of exactly the same 20 amino acids, the architect for which is the DNA inside cells.

Only three per cent of the human genome is understood. The function of the remaining 97 per cent is unknown.

The genetic information of a human being (the genome) is contained in three billion letters spread out along a single filament of DNA. This is duplicated in a “backup copy” in the other DNA strand and is also comprised of 23 compact segments knowns as chromosomes, which also come in pairs. Our complete genetic message, made up of complete genomes, their backup copies and chromosomes contains a total of six billion base pairs, for a total of 12 billion letters.

How did this come about?

As Narby points out: suddenly.

The earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, but was inhospitable for life. It was a molten lava fireball with a radioactive surface. Water was so hot it existed only as incondensable vapor, and the atmosphere — devoid of breathable oxygen — contained poisonous gases such as cyanide and formaldehyde.

Approximately 3.9 billion years ago the earth’s surface cooled sufficiently to form a thin crust on top of the molten magma. Strangely, life — and thus DNA — appeared relatively quickly thereafter. Scientists have found traces of biological activity in sedimentary rocks 3.85 billion years old, and fossil hunters have found actual bacterial fossils that are 3.5 billion years old.

During the first two billion years of life on earth, the planet was inhabited only by anaerobic bacteria (for which oxygen is poison) that lived in water. Some of these bacteria used the hydrogen in water (H2O) and expelled oxygen; over time, as more oxygen was released into the atmosphere, other bacteria evolved that made use of oxygen.

These oxygen-consuming bacteria evolved a new kind of cell equipped with a nucleus for packing together its DNA. (These nucleated cells are at least 30 times more voluminous than bacterial cells.) The change was sudden and cannot be explained by gradual changes over time.

Then, around 550 million years ago, these nucleated cells started glomming on to one another and forming symbiotic relationships. As cells became more and more specialized, life exploded into a grand variety of multicellular species, from algae to more complex plants and animals.

A series of eruptions of life from the Cambrian Period onwards created millions of life forms (many of them microscopic) that were periodically wiped out by mass extinctions (e.g., from comets and meteors). According to certain estimates, almost all the species that have ever lived on earth have already disappeared, yet there are between three million and 50 million species living currently.

Evolution — or the various manifestations of DNA — has been marked by some significant and quirky developments.

For instance, by about 500 million years ago photosynthesis produced oxygen such that oxygen in the atmosphere increased to about 21 per cent, and then stabilized. This stabilization was fortunate because if oxygen were only a few per cent higher, living beings would combust spontaneously!

Another miraculous development was eyes, which we somewhat take for granted. Eyes are astonishing things. The cells on the outer layer of a human retina can absorb a single particle of light, or photon, and amplify its energy at least a million times, before transferring it in the form of a nervous signal to the back of the brain. We never see reality, but only an internal representation of it that our brain constructs for us continuously.

It’s as though the universe wanted to see itself, and created DNA, and then eyes, in order to do so.

The discovery of DNA was itself bizarre.

Francis Crick famously “discovered” the double helix structure of DNA after using LSD, claiming the drug revealed this structure to him.

Crick spent a great deal of time pondering  the complexity of DNA and the myriad complex lifeforms it has spawned over millions of years; so many different creatures formed from a structure that has not changed.

It bothered him that this DNA appeared in the geologic record fully formed; he concluded that it could not have simply been a chance event, as is often described in science classes where a primordial “chemical soup” is somehow brought to life by electricity and other factors.

For Crick, the appearance of DNA fully formed was as improbable as finding a 1957 Chevrolet automobile created by a dust storm. He made a rigorous calculation of the probability of the chance emergence of one single protein (that could then go on to build the first DNA molecule). According to the laws of combinatorials, there is only one chance in 20 multiplied by itself 200 times for a single specific protein to emerge fortuitously. This figure can be written as 20 to the power of 200, roughly equivalent to 10 to the power of 260 — a number enormously greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe (which is estimated at just 10 to the power of 80).

This mathematical unlikeliness led Crick to eventually theorize what he called “directed panspermia” in which the earth was deliberately seeded with DNA life via spaceships or some other extraterrestrial mechanism.

Interestingly, modern people may not be the first to know about DNA, though we may be the first to describe it in “scientific” terms.

The symbolism of ancient cultures and present day shamanistic indigenous societies is rich in stories and illustrations of the double helix DNA structure in the form of twisting ladders and intertwined serpents, etc. When asked what these symbols mean, the shamans of the upper Amazon, for instance, say the double serpents are the foundation of all life. These insights are revealed to them by their ceremonial use of psychedelic plants like ayahuasca. Though they don’t call it “DNA” their accounts are highly suggestive that they’re describing DNA in animistic or mythopoeic terms.

And like Crick, psychotropic substances are the medium of discovery.

If this seems strange, consider the temple complex of Luxor, Egypt, which was founded in 1400 BCE in the ancient city of Thebes. The complex is laid out in the shape of a human being, with its most sacred area (the sanctuary of Amun-Re) located in the hall that corresponds with the head, and various halls corresponding to the torso and legs. Inscriptions and decorations on the walls and pillars have anatomical associations with each section of the human body. The entire building appears to have been a kind of teaching academy for medicine and anatomy.

Interestingly, in the area of the temple associated with the lower body and reproduction or fertility, the pharaoh is depicted with an erect phallus from which emerges an anatomically correct spermatozoa. (See photo.) How did the ancient Egyptians know about something that can only be seen through a powerful microscope?

It’s worth noting that Egyptian priests were familiar with the hallucinogenic blue lily and other entheogens, which appear in many inscriptions.

So there you have it: You are a biological machine programmed with billions of miles of miraculous DNA, your essence discoverable through science and magic plants!

How cool is that?

 


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