Biochemistry: Randomness and God

DNA wrapping around histone proteins (coloured) by Penn State – Flickr. License: CC2.0

How can a random process generate meaningful mechanisms? This is the question that Keith Fox, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Southampton and Associate Director of the Faraday Institute, asked in his seminar at the Faraday Institute last week. Biochemical reactions are chaotic at a molecular level, because it is impossible to Continue reading

Love Me to the Moon?

By ulrikebohr570 – pixabay. Public Domain
By ulrikebohr570 – pixabay. Public Domain

Anyone who was up at around 2 or 3 am on Monday last week might have seen a rare astronomical event. Lunar eclipses happen at least once or twice a year, but this one was unusual because it happened when the moon appeared larger and brighter than at any other point in the month. The next ‘supermoon’ eclipse’ is due in Continue reading

Guest Post: The Incredible Properties of DNA

View of the structure of DNA by Виталий Смолыгин. License: Public Domain
View of the structure of DNA by Виталий Смолыгин. License:Public Domain

DNA must be one of the most instantly recognisable molecules and many people will be familiar with its elegant double helical structure. I am a biochemist, and I have been privileged to work with Continue reading

Assimilation: The genetic history of the human race Root Root

As someone with largely European ancestry, 1-4% of my DNA is likely to have come from Neanderthals. My mother had red hair, my whole family have white skin, and we are relatively well adapted to the cold. These characteristics could all be faint traces of our Neanderthal ancestry. My friends from the Far East will probably also share a little of their DNA with another race of hominins* called Denisovans, and Africans with yet other ancient hominins.

Why do I find this new information about our ancestry so fascinating? Continue reading

Genes and God

Helmut Gevert,
© Helmut Gevert,

 Identical twins are living proof that our genes contribute to, but don’t completely determine our behaviour. But what about our faith? Does our DNA affect our beliefs or how we express them? Denis Alexander and Nell Whiteway have spent the last couple of years working on a project at the Faraday Institute ‘Genes, Determinism and God’*. Nell spoke on the genetics of religious behaviour last month, as part of the Wesley Methodist church Science meets Faith lecture series.

Any parent of identical twins knows that identical DNA does not equal identical personalities. On the other hand, twins do share many characteristics – even if they grow up in separate families – which makes them an ideal population for geneticists to look at. Continue reading

The Art of Molecular Biology

Picture of containers of DNA 'markers'
© Algiamil,

In Science, Faith and Creativity I explained how science can be creative, and that a Christian working in the sciences might see that as part of their relationship with God. Apart from a brief description in The Creativity of Chemistry, I haven’t yet given an example of what creative science looks like, so I will attempt to remedy that here. (This is a longer post than usual because I have included a basic explanation of molecular biology for the non biologist.)

I personally came to appreciate the creativity of science while studying genetics. Creative people generate ideas and make new things, and I discovered that lab-based research involves both of those activities. My favourite part of the genetics course at Aberdeen University was molecular biology: the study of DNA and proteins. I enjoyed the challenges of problem solving, lateral thinking and visual model making that were involved in exploring the micro-world of cells and molecules. I also appreciated that fact that we were learning about solutions to real-life issues. Continue reading

Beautiful Helix

DNA, Tomislav Alajbeg
DNA. © Tomislav Alajbeg,

The young researcher Matt Meselson must have been very excited when he pulled a photograph showing a series of grey stripes out of his wallet and passed it round at breakfast on New Year’s day 1958. Most of us might have a limited understanding of what he was celebrating, but his work has since been hailed as ‘the most beautiful experiment in biology’.

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick’s famous Nature paper describing the structure of DNA. The now iconic helix was a bold idea based on data from the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, and kick-started a revolution in biology. From the 1960s onwards, molecular biologists, including Matt Meselson, have been unravelling the secrets of the genome.

As a student in genetics I was taught the key experiments that helped scientists to accept that DNA was the molecule of inheritance, understand its information-carrying properties, and figure out how that information is passed on. I’m glad we didn’t have to reproduce this work in the laboratory because it was highly technical, rather tedious, and often involved the use of radioactive chemicals. With my impressive track record of spilling liquids, I’m not sure I would have survived! The resulting data, however, are beautifully simple and satisfyingly visual.

Perhaps the fuzzy grey bands that Meselson pushed under his friends’ noses that day would not look beautiful or simple to most people. To a biologist, however, the clear and visible demonstration of the ‘semiconservative’ replication of DNA by Meselson and his co-worker Frank Stahl is beauty itself. Something that looked rather boring – a series of grey stripes representing DNA with different chemical labels – has changed the way we see ourselves in a fundamental way. Continue reading