Archives for: December 2011
You are a collection of cells (literally trillions of them), each with a specific design and function. However, with a few exceptions, your cells all have a basic architectural design. Most of the time they are depicted as looking like a fried egg cooked sunny side up, but in reality they are three dimensional beings, more akin to a golf ball that you’ve cut across its midline. The “white” of our cell model is the body of the cell, and here are found many specialized areas called organelles that do particular jobs, much like our own internal organs have specific jobs as well. The “yolk” of our cell model is called the nucleus, and in this compartment there lies the object of our affections, the chromosomes.
Chromosomes were first discovered at the end of the 19th century by a German biologist named Walther Flemming. Flemming was looking at cells under a microscope and got the idea to use colors to dye the cell to make it easier to see things. The idea must have worked better than anticipated since he at once began to see spaghetti looking things in the nucleus that dyed a very deep color. As is the fashion, he named these entities chromosomes which is Greek for “colored bodies”.
Chromosomes are one of the more dynamic faces of Nature; they have to be, since they are responsible for the passing on of the 'Baton of Life' that we call reproduction. The number of chromosome in the cell nucleus differs somewhat from species to species. We humans have 46 chromosomes; dogs have 78; alligators 32; cabbage plants 18.
Your chromosomes are both the governess and chauffeur of the most important molecule in your body: DNA --which is actually two molecules wrapped around each other. Like any blueprint, DNA needs to be read in order for the work order to be constructed. Now, DNA is a long, long molecule. If it were completely unraveled it would be about six feet long, yet so thin that it would be invisible, since you can easily fit one million cells on the head of a pin. If the entire DNA, in every cell of your body, was stretched out and laid end-to-end in a straight line, it would reach to the sun and back over one thousand times.
I think an effective way of describing the dynamic qualities of the chromosome is to use a few metaphors. My older daughter likes to knit, so we often visit the knitting supply shop in town for fresh yarn. Yarn usually comes wrapped in skeins, a length of yarn wound around a reel. Most yarn comes in lengths of 80-150 yards. One of the nice things about buying yarn this way, rather than just as one long unwound string, is that you can put it under your arm and walk to the car. This is certainly better than tying a knot to the rear bumper and pulled the unwound string all the way home. Thus, the first important lesion of chromosome dynamics; if you’re going to reproduce you’ve got to stuff that entire DNA into a very small, tight package. Chromosomes are just that: tight packages of DNA.
On the other hand, it is very difficult, if not downright impossible to knit anything if the skein of yarn still has the paper label wrapped around it. In order to use the yarn, you have to unwind it. That’s the formula: when the cell needs to use DNA to get information about how to make a protein, it has to unwind it. When it needs to reproduce, or turn off the DNA information flow, it needs to concentrate and condense it.
How this occurs is rather wondrous, and will be the subject of much discussion later on when we talk about how you can modify your genetic destiny, but for now we’ll just stick to the basics. DNA is packaged and concentrated by special proteins termed histones. This concentrated DNA is called chromatin, which is the DNA plus the histones that package DNA within the cell nucleus. Chromatin structure is also relevant to DNA replication and DNA repair.
Histones are very cool bead-like proteins that spool the DNA in a way that makes it either tighter or looser, sort of like the cardboard around which our skein of yarn is wrapped. Histones respond to changes in their structure by tightening the DNA wrap or loosening it. Whenever a cell needs to access the genetic information encoded in its DNA, the histones on the section of the DNA that is needed undergo a chemical reaction called acetylation by which a molecule called an acetyl group is stuck on the histones, causing them to relax and unravel. When business is concluded for the day, special enzymes come along and chomp off the acetyl group cause the histones to become de-acetylated, which makes them tighten up again, sending the DNA in the region back to its resting state. Think of it like this; when your DNA needs to work its histones chow down on acetyl groups for breakfast and they do yoga; when it needs to reproduce or shut down, the histones lift weights --the strain of which causes the acetyl group to pop out of their mouths.
Make sure that you’ve mastered the last paragraph, because much of the very cool stuff dealing with how you can modify gene functions pretty much requires that you know this stuff. By the way, this is very, very cutting edge material; only until recent times have we understood this mechanism, and of supremely paramount importance, that it is used by the environment to influence gene function and that influence, for either good or bad, can be passed on as inheritance.
Scientists have given each human chromosome a number, according to its size; thus chromosome number 1 is the largest, then number 2, etc. Chromosomes come in pairs, one from each parent. So there are 23 pairs, for a total of 46 in us humans. Numbers 1-22 are non-sex chromosomes called autosomes, and pair 23 contains the X and Y sex chromosomes.
In the few minutes it has taken to read up to here, this, around 400 million of your red blood cells were depleted and replaced, consistent with the set of genetic instructions contained in your DNA.