Dr. Know

About time you monkeys showed up — it’s been almost a month since your last genetics lesson, and I was worried you might’ve developed a false sense of superiority without my gentle assurances that you come from a useless and laughable species. External sex organs! That’s a hoot! Sounds like something that was thought up on a dare!

Now, normally I would recap our talk from last time, but I have a pretty little barn owl coming by soon, so the faster you vacate my abode, the better.

Although there is one glaring omission from our previous talks that I think I should address tonight . . . don’t think I haven’t noticed your featherless foreheads furiously furrowing when I say “DNA.” You can’t hide a lack of knowledge from someone who knows you possess none.

Now, dioxy ribonucleic acid, or DNA, as your acronym-loving species calls it, is to genetics as words are to books. Whereas this pathetic language you call English needs a whole 26 letters to get by, DNA, in its elegant efficiency, only needs four: cytosine, guanine, adenine and tyrosine. Instead of quaintly being called “letters,” they are called “bases.”

From these deceptively non-obfuscated four bases comes something as magnificently complex as myself, or as offensively simple as you ground-apes.

Now I understand that your primitive neocortexes, despite their impressive size, often require visuals to fully comprehend a concept, and so here it is: imagine DNA as a friendly zipper. You have two strands, which are opposite one another so their “teeth” (the cytosine, guanine, adenine and tyrosine molecules we talked about earlier) can lock together. When the double-stranded DNA molecule needs to be replicated, it is just “unzipped” to form two strands, and since one individual strand is a mirror image of the other, they are used as a template for the enzyme DNA polymerase, which builds a mirror strand on each of the two individual strands, yielding two double stranded molecules.

Hoo, I believe several of you have suffered a brain implosion. Over there in the back, you seem to have screwed your eyes shut and slumped over. Casualties of knowledge, I guess. I call “dibs” on the chubby one; I like my mammal meat to be well-marbled.

Now, since DNA is so small, and dealing with individual strands is, for this reason, so difficult, doing anything with DNA is a gamble. No I don’t mean “gamble” like you mindless drones do whilst sitting atop your stools, inserting coins and pulling levers, I mean “gamble” as in it’s a numbers game.

Whether you’re cloning DNA, chopping it or simply analyzing its sequence, you only have a chance in a million of actually performing the intended task. “How do you ensure that what you want to happen takes place?” a keen one among your species may ask. Well simple, you do everything a billion times. Perhaps the best example of this is a process called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

A rare genius among your species stumbled upon PCR whilst driving his car along a winding road one night. He realized that since DNA will denature (the scientific word for unzipping a double stranded DNA molecule) at about 90 C, and that, by adding DNA polymerase to a solution of DNA along with a few other ingredients, repeated cycles of heating and cooling could allow him to copy the DNA, turning one strand into many.

Now I’m going to ask the feebler-minded among you to leave the room for a minute, because the adults are going to talk math. If you start with one strand of DNA and copy it, how many strands do you now have? You would have two. If you copied each of those strands you would have four. And those? Right, eight! Are you sure you don’t have a little owl in you?

That is what is called exponential growth, and after only 30 doublings (the number of cycles of heating and cooling a typical PCR operation would have) you would have more than a billion strands. Now imagine how many you would have if you already started with a few thousand strands of starting material!

And that is how you put the odds in your favour.

Now scram — I get such headaches asking my brain to voluntarily degrade itself to your level. Oh, how vile, the smell in here is atrocious, who taught you creatures to urinate and defecate indoors? I hope you’re happy; there is no way my date will ever agree to “accept the lemming” now.

Why do I bother?