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Not just the code of life

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In the decade since the completion of the Human Genome Project, researchers around the world have been able to determine the full DNA sequences of animals, plants and bacteria. For example, Australian researchers are studying the Tasmanian devil’s genome in an effort to combat the cancer that is threatening to eradicate this already endangered species.

Efforts are also being made in human medicine to determine people’s partial DNA sequences in order to look at particular diseases such as Alzheimer’s or cancer, and researchers have begun offering the option of sequencing the full genome of an individual to learn more about unexplained conditions or to develop more targeted medical treatments.

In the past year, however, recent reports talk about DNA in terms other than newly unraveled genetic codes for another animal, plant or disease. For example, in the Feb. 12 issue of the Journal of Materials Chemistry A, Italian researchers demonstrated that DNA could be used to make cotton fabrics less flammable.

Flame-retardant fabrics are used in vehicles, protective clothing for some professions and even sleepwear for children. Some of the chemicals currently being used on these fabrics have raised concerns, however, because they have been found to be toxic to humans and animals. The Italian researchers’ work suggests that that a natural and environment-friendly flame-retardant treatment can be developed.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt to use DNA for conferring flame retardancy to a polymeric material,” the team wrote in their report.

Treating cotton with a solution containing herring sperm DNA, the researchers applied flame to the fabric in a series of tests. They found that untreated cotton lit up very quickly, but the DNA-treated cotton lit up and then flamed out within two seconds. Additionally, the team was not able to make the same piece of treated fabric ignite again.

Fabric texture

“Furthermore, it is possible to observer that although the fibers within the combustion area are slightly consumed, the texture of the fabric is still maintained,” they added.

Despite the promise of their novel flame-retardant treatment, the researchers noted that one problem they’re aware of is that the DNA coating is removed when the fabric is washed. This is an issue they hope future studies can help resolve.

Another use for DNA builds upon its function as storage of an individual’s entire genetic information. In separate studies and using different techniques, British and American researchers demonstrated they could store music files and texts such as all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then successfully retrieve the information using the same technologies used to read DNA sequences. To give an idea of the storage capacity DNA offers, the teams’ findings suggest that the amount of digital information people generate in a year could all be stored on just a few grams of DNA.

Though the current cost of storing the information onto DNA is much more expensive than, say, pulling out a USB drive or burning the information onto a CD, the researchers noted that as a long-term storage device, DNA has an advantage as it’s been shown to last for millenniums while storage devices such as floppy disks have come and gone.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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