Journey of Man
A Genetic Odyssey - Where Did We Come From?

Journey of Man
A Genetic Odyssey - Where Did We Come From?
DNA — is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms (with the exception of RNA viruses).

The main role of DNA molecules is the long-term storage of information.

DNA is often compared to a set of blueprints, like a recipe or a code, since it contains the instructions needed to construct other components of cells, such as proteins and RNA molecules.

The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in regulating the use of this genetic information.

Along with RNA and proteins, DNA is one of the three major macromolecules that are essential for all known forms of life.

Where did we come from? Spencer Wells, a 33-year-old population geneticist, has closed the door on his laboratory and is embarking on the biggest adventure of his life.

His mission: to retrace the most extraordinary journey of all time, a journey that involves every man, woman and child alive today.

He offers his thoughts on this puzzling question, employing the latest in DNA research and technology to track the migration of humanity across the globe.

By collecting blood samples from thousands of men living in isolated tribes around the world and analyzing their DNA, Spencer and his colleagues discovered that all humans alive today can be traced back to a small tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in Africa 60,000 years ago.

Following this genetic trail, Spencer has charted the ancient journey of our ancestors as they populated the planet, continent by continent.

Spencer scours the world for indigenous people with deep roots in one place, asking for samples of DNA to test, in order to piece together our "big family" genetic tree.

In Indiana Jones mode, Wells tacks down common ancestors and comes up with some surprising candidates which he interviews.

The best parts are when he returns with DNA results and we see the diverse ways in which people and tribes react to the news of what science says about their arrival and relations. View this as adventure travel or as a painless way to begin your genetic literacy.

The fact that living things inherit traits from their parents has been used since prehistoric times to improve crop plants and animals through selective breeding.

However, the modern science of genetics, which seeks to understand the process of inheritance, only began with the work of Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century.

Although he did not know the physical basis for heredity, Mendel observed that organisms inherit traits via discrete units of inheritance, which are now called genes.

Genes correspond to regions within DNA, a molecule composed of a chain of four different types of nucleotides—the sequence of these nucleotides is the genetic information organisms inherit.

DNA naturally occurs in a double stranded form, with nucleotides on each strand complementary to each other. Each strand can act as a template for creating a new partner strand. This is the physical method for making copies of genes that can be inherited.

The sequence of nucleotides in a gene is translated by cells to produce a chain of amino acids, creating proteins—the order of amino acids in a protein corresponds to the order of nucleotides in the gene. This relationship between nucleotide sequence and amino acid sequence is known as the genetic code.

The amino acids in a protein determine how it folds into a three-dimensional shape; this structure is, in turn, responsible for the protein's function. Proteins carry out almost all the functions needed for cells to live.

A change to the DNA in a gene can change a protein's amino acids, changing its shape and function: this can have a dramatic effect in the cell and on the organism as a whole.Although genetics plays a large role in the appearance and behavior of organisms, it is the combination of genetics with what an organism experiences that determines the ultimate outcome.

For example, while genes play a role in determining an organism's size, the nutrition and health it experiences after inception also have a large effect.

DNA: The Secrets of Life

DNA was first isolated by the Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher who, in 1869, discovered a microscopic substance in the pus of discarded surgical bandages.

As it resided in the nuclei of cells, he called it "nuclein". In 1919, Phoebus Levene identified the base, sugar and phosphate nucleotide unit.

Levene suggested that DNA consisted of a string of nucleotide units linked together through the phosphate groups.

However, Levene thought the chain was short and the bases repeated in a fixed order. In 1937 William Astbury produced the first X-ray diffraction patterns that showed that DNA had a regular structure.

In 1927 Nikolai Koltsov proposed that inherited traits would be inherited via a "giant hereditary molecule" which would be made up of "two mirror strands that would replicate in a semi-conservative fashion using each strand as a template".

In 1928, Frederick Griffith discovered that traits of the "smooth" form of the Pneumococcus could be transferred to the "rough" form of the same bacteria by mixing killed "smooth" bacteria with the live "rough" form. This system provided the first clear suggestion that DNA carries genetic information—the Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment—when Oswald Avery, along with coworkers Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty, identified DNA as the transforming principle in 1943.

DNA's role in heredity was confirmed in 1952, when Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase in the Hershey–Chase experiment showed that DNA is the genetic material of the T2 phage.

In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick suggested what is now accepted as the first correct double-helix model of DNA structure in the journal Nature.

Their double-helix, molecular model of DNA was then based on a single X-ray diffraction image taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling in May 1952, as well as the information that the DNA bases are paired — also obtained through private communications from Erwin Chargaff in the previous years.

Chargaff's rules played a very important role in establishing double-helix configurations for B-DNA as well as A-DNA. Experimental evidence supporting the Watson and Crick model were published in a series of five articles in the same issue of Nature.

Of these, Franklin and Gosling's paper was the first publication of their own X-ray diffraction data and original analysis method that partially supported the Watson and Crick model; this issue also contained an article on DNA structure by Maurice Wilkins and two of his colleagues, whose analysis and in vivo B-DNA X-ray patterns also supported the presence in vivo of the double-helical DNA configurations as proposed by Crick and Watson for their double-helix molecular model of DNA in the previous two pages of Nature.

In 1962, after Franklin's death, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. However, Nobel rules of the time allowed only living recipients, but a vigorous debate continues on who should receive credit for the discovery.

In an influential presentation in 1957, Crick laid out the central dogma of molecular biology, which foretold the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins, and articulated the "adaptor hypothesis". Final confirmation of the replication mechanism that was implied by the double-helical structure followed in 1958 through the Meselson–Stahl experiment.

Further work by Crick and coworkers showed that the genetic code was based on non-overlapping triplets of bases, called codons, allowing Har Gobind Khorana, Robert W. Holley and Marshall Warren Nirenberg to decipher the genetic code. These findings represent the birth of molecular biology.