Hares And Tortoises

You may have noticed that the last few months have seen a bit of a DNA-fest in these pages. Don’t blame me. It’s all the fault of them scientists beavering away in their labs. We’ve just done “Making Movies in DNA“, in “And Now There Are Six!!” the genetic code was expanded from four to six units by making two new ones artificially and in “How Does DNA Do It?” we saw how words can be transformed into a sequence of DNA.

Now they’re at it again – or at least Stephen Kowalczykowski, James Graham and colleagues of the University of California at Davis are – revealing yet more astonishing things about this molecule, just when you could be thinking we’ve got the hang of it.

I might add that I’m grateful to my correspondent David Archer of The Society of Biology for bringing this piece of work to my notice as I’d missed it in the journal Cell (cries of ‘shame’ and ‘shurely shome mistake’ mingle in the background).

What is it this time?  

Well it’s two really astonishing things about DNA replication – the process by which double-stranded DNA is pulled apart so that each strand can act as a template for making a new DNA molecule. Result: as cells progress towards division, they double their DNA content so that equal amounts can be given to each new daughter cell. The first source of amazement is that Stephen K & chums have filmed this happening in real time. That’s a terrific feat – but what it reveals is quite bizarre.

Up to now it’s been assumed that the protein machines (DNA polymerases) doing the biz trundle along each of the separated strands of parental DNA at more or less the same speed. It would seem to make no sense to do otherwise and risk ending up with the job half done. In other words, the duplication of the two strands is coordinated. Is that what K & Co found? Not a bit of it! Extraordinary to relate, it appears that there’s no coordination between the strands at all!! Not for the first time in the history of molecular biology a technical advance has thrown up the totally unexpected. Before we look at the results in a bit more detail, a little background might be useful.

One divides into two

Making two identical copies of DNA from one original happens every time one cell divides to make two. And there’s a lot of it about. As is well known, we all start out as one cell (i.e. a fertilized egg) that turns into a human being – 50 trillion cells (that’s 5 + 13 zeroes). And even after we’ve been assembled it takes a lot of cell-making to keep us ticking over – about one million new cells every second. Just take a second to think about that: DNA comes in the well-known form of a double helix – two strands made up of chemical units (called nucleotides) linked together. Each unit has one of four bases (cytosine (C), guanine (G), adenine (A), or thymine (T)) and the strands are “complementary” because C pairs with G and A with T – a rigid rule that means if you know the sequence of bases in one strand you can work out what it is in the other. So far so simple. But, as we noted in “How Does DNA Do It?”, the coding power of DNA lies in its size. In us three billion letters are available to do the encoding. That is, there are just over 3,000 million units in each chain – i.e. 3,000 million base-pairs all told. And all of these are copied (twice) for every new cell.

DNA replication: The double helix is ‘unzipped’ so that each separated strand (turquoise) can act as a template for replicating a new partner strand (green). This creates a ‘replication fork’ – two branches of single stranded DNA. The new strands are made by protein complexes called DNA polymerases chugging along the parent strands, making new, complementary, strands as they go. There’s a small technical wrinkle here: new DNA chains can only be extended in one direction. This means that, while one strand can be made continuously (the leading strand), the other has to be put together in short bits as the parent strand is unwound, with the bits being joined up afterwards (the lagging strand).



Timing is everything

So the cell’s task is to unzip the double helix and use each exposed strand as a template for building a new partner strand. Things are helped by DNA being split into fragments (chromosomes: 23 pairs in humans + 2 sex chromosomes, 46 per cell all told). Even so, chromosomes are huge: the longest (chromosome 1) has nearly 250 million base-pairs; the shortest (chr 21) has about 47 million. The problem for the machinery that has evolved for the job is that it cranks along at 50 pairs per second – roughly a month per chromosome. But in a normal cell cycle the whole business is done in about two hours! That’s made possible because replication doesn’t do the obvious: start at one end and work its way to the other. Cunningly it hits lots of ‘start points’ – up to 100,000 in a single cell – making lots of short bits at the same time that are then joined up. In other words replication proceeds simultaneously from many different sites in chromosomes. Enzymes join the pieces together to make the final, complete copy.

It’s rather like you having some horribly repetitive chore to do – washing up after a big dinner. On your own you might start at one end of the pile and work through it but, far better, get one member of the family to do the plates, another the cutlery, etc. and – job done!!

Now for today’s bit of amazing science

What Kowalczykowski and friends did was to extract DNA from bugs (E.coli bacteria in fact, that can make DNA about 20 times faster than human cells), set up a replication system and measure what went on by microscopy, using a dye (SYTOX Orange, which is fluorescent) that sticks to complete double helices but not to single strands. Thus they could track progress along a strand as a new double helix formed. What they saw was that each strand acted independently of the other. Overall, the rate of replication of the two strands was about the same (as it must be in the end) but along the way there were stops and starts and sometimes one strand would grow at ten times the speed of the other. How weird is that?!!

Seeing DNA being made. In this picture microscopy reveals three extending stretches of double-stranded DNA being made (Graham et al. 2017). Click here to see video.

You could picture DNA replication as one of those Swiss railway trains cranking up a mountain at an improbable angle, using a rack-and-pinion to stop it sliding backwards. Think of the engaging cogs as new base-pairs. The train just keeps chugging along until it reaches the its next stop. But why doesn’t the DNA-making machinery do the same? Well, we haven’t much of a clue. One difference is that the train has its track (and rack) laid out before it, whereas DNA is continuously being unwound to open the template. Some bits are more difficult to unwind than others and this variation may cause the system to go in fits and starts. Another contribution many come from the many proteins involved in this complicated process. As well as the polymerases there are things that unwind DNA, stabilize it, stitch new bits together, etc. and these complexes are continuously forming, falling apart and re-assembling – all of which gives plenty of scope for erratic behaviour.

Fact of the matter is, we don’t know. So, in revealing completely unexpected behaviour, this technical triumph throws up the question of how two strands working independently manage, in the end, to come up with the perfect finished product.

But hey! This wouldn’t be science if we had all the answers!


Graham, J.E., Marians, K.J., Kowalczykowski, S.C. (2017). Independent and Stochastic Action of DNA Polymerases in the Replisome. Cell 169, 1201–1213.


Getting your DNA in a twist

I have a good friend who has just emerged triumphant from a run-in with bowel cancer – she’s in complete remission! Almost as wonderful is the fact that colliding with cancer has converted her from a genuine non-scientist to one who devours biology like fish and chip suppers. Spotting a recent volley of media items about four-stranded ‘quadruple helix’ DNA in human cells, she was on Twitter in a flash: “Does this mean that people with cancer have lots more quadruplex DNA than normal?” As she knows I can’t stand the Tweet cult she was probably amazed to get a reply: short answer: “No.”

But as ever in science, there’s a long(er) response. So, if you’re interested in the gyrations and gymnastics of which your genetic code is capable, read on …

The DNA double helix

The DNA double helix

Beautiful DNA

As you know, DNA comes as a double helix – a 2-chain spiral of small units (called nucleotides) that stick together (the units contain bases, so they’re ‘base-paired’). The oft-reproduced double helix image is beautiful because it’s a repetitive structure and you can easily see how it can be ‘unzipped’ so that each half can be used as a template to make a copy and regions can be ‘read’ to make RNA and proteins – though it was really designed to enable biologists to make endless unzipping jokes about genes and jeans.

The two DNA molecules of the helix stick together because of a balance between three forces: (1) weak electronic attraction between some atoms in the bases (called hydrogen bonds), (2) a sort of glueyness between the bases because their chemical structure means they don’t like water much and they’d rather snuggle up together, and (3) a repulsion between the chains because of the repeated phosphate groups all the way along the backbone (these carry an electric charge and likes repel, as we know).

Ugly DNA

But with all these attractions and repulsions you might think there would be lots of ways nucleic acids could get tangled up with each other – and there is. So the common form of double helix (the beautiful shape) is B-DNA but there’s also A-DNA, C-DNA and Z-DNA. If you just change the conditions a bit (pinch of salt or whatever) you can tweak the interactions so bits of the bases that don’t interact in B-DNA will do so to give a slightly different shape (usually a bit distorted – ugly). As you can see from the structure, Z-DNA is more Homer Simpson than Watson and Crick.

B- and Z-DNA

B- and Z-DNA


We can’t reproduce the environment of DNA in the nucleus so we don’t really have a clue but the betting is that short bits of DNA jink in and out of these odd structural formations – just as part of the continuous flexing of the molecules. There’s also a couple of other things that can happen that have been known for a long time – again just dependent on the precise conditions in which a piece of DNA finds itself.

Sexy modelling

The first is a variant on the hydrogen bonds that form between bases. One way to think of this is to imagine two circles of five people, each ring holding hands and facing outwards. Each person is an atom in the bases of DNA. Let’s think of base pairing as the two nearest in the circles getting close enough to kiss. That’s one hydrogen bond. But, of course, the two other pairs on either side will now be quite close: if one of them also manages to kiss (tongues may be used) now we have two hydrogen bonds – which is what holds the bases A and T together. But suppose that the pair on the other side (who must also be quite close with all this adjacent necking going on) decide they really fancy joining in and are so excited that they twist the circle out of shape to do so. That this can happen has been known for years (it’s called Hoogsteen base pairing after the voyeur what spotted it) and when it does it can distort the helix enough for a third DNA strand to wrap round the original two – so you get triple-stranded DNA.

A sexual need

Similarly, if you tweak the conditions you can get four strands of DNA to come together and indeed we’ve known for yonks that happens naturally during recombination (that’s when genetic material gets swapped between Mum and Dad chromosomes – the reason for sex). When that happens you can think of four DNA strands forming a cross, each quadrant contains DNA from one strand of a chromosome, base-paired to that in the next quadrant – which is how bits get swapped around.

Non-sexual hugging?

So there’s nothing new about odd DNA shapes but what has made the news is that for the first time, rather than looking at what can be made to happen in a test tube, Shankar Balasubramanian and his pals have looked in whole cells. To do this they made an antibody that sticks only to ‘quadruple helix’ DNA structures – G-quadruplexes. The upshot is that they detected quadruplexes scattered throughout chromosomes and they see more in cells that are rapidly dividing than in ones that are just sitting there (they looked in some cancer cells in culture that do divide quite rapidly – but bear in mind that in tumours cells aren’t diving all that fast). So the inference is that they might form as part of DNA replication and, if you can target them by their antibody, maybe you could do something similar with a drug that would stop cells dividing. And if you could target that to cancer cells you could stop them in their tracks.

And the catch …

Simple. But there are some problems. It’s possible the antibody helps the quadruplexes to form – so it could even be a cunning artifact. But if we assume it isn’t – then we come face to face with a really big problem. There are zillions of ways you can kill cancer cells. The difficulty is that there isn’t one that selects cancer cells from normals. It may be possible (though it’s not evident how) to target quadruplexes and block cell division – but there are lots of cells that we need to divide rapidly just to keep us going – and, if quadruplexes are real, presumably they have ’em. So non-specific killing is probably not a good idea. Twas ever thus.


Biffi, G., Tannahill, D., McCafferty, J. and Balasubramanian, S. (2013). Quantitative visualization of DNA G-quadruplex structures in human cells. Nature Chemistry published online: 20 January 2013 | doi: 10.1038/nchem.1548


The Creation of Cancer

Where do cancers come from?’ One of those dreaded childish questions – so best to get your thinking in first, rather than trying to answer on the hoof in the face of that unblinking stare of expectation. In the beginning, as you might say, we need a hand-wavy word on how DNA ‘makes proteins’, why they’re important (‘Proteins R Us’, in short) and what can go wrong with them.

DNA double-helix

The double helix of DNA

In 1953 Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA. It holds, of course, the secret of life and you might observe that it has the appropriate shape of a spiral staircase to nowhere. The ‘genetic code’ is the order of thousands of small bits that are linked together to make the very long molecules of DNA. These bits contain smaller bits called bases – four of them (A, C, G and T) – and they’re firmly stuck together so that each DNA molecule is pretty stable. In addition, bases in one DNA can stick to those in a second strand – hence the double-helix.


DNA encodes proteins

The essence of life is the transformation of the genetic code into the corresponding sequence of the building blocks that make proteins. The blocks are amino acids, stitched together to make proteins in much the same way as DNA is built from its base-containing units. There are 20 different types that can be glued together in any order, a typical protein containing a thousand amino acids. They tell the protein how to fold up into its final shape – a 3D structure unique for each protein. Many proteins are blobs (like balls of string) but, as you’d guess given that they do everything, they come in all shapes and sizes—cables, sheets, coils, bridges, etc. The idea then is fairly simple: flexible protein chains fold themselves into their working shape – and individual shapes enable proteins to do specific jobs. A simple sum can show that a limitless variety of proteins can be made: they are the machines of life that make all living things work and they have created all the species of life on earth.


Proteins make life possible because the exquisite choreography that generates their shape creates localised regions (sticky bits, clefts, cavities, etc.) for interactions with other molecules. These confer amazing versatility: proteins can ‘talk’ to each other and form relay teams that transmit information from one part of a cell to another, they can generate movement (as in muscles), and bring molecules together (e.g., when they act as enzymes driving chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur). But, as we all know, mistakes can happen even in the best-run enterprises. Mistakes in proteins arise from mutations – changes in the DNA code. Many diseases result from single base alterations: if that changes an amino acid the result can be a protein with dramatically altered function. A well-known example is cystic fibrosis: a protein made in the lung has one abnormal amino acid: the effect on its activity causes a build-up of mucus that makes breathing difficult and is a target for fatal infections.

Mutations and cancer

Cancers are also caused by mutations but they’re a bit more complicated, being driven by groups of mutations, rather than by one event. For most cancers these are picked up as we go through life – so the creation of a cancer is a slow process. Most don’t appear until we are over 60 years of age – collecting a suitable hand of mutations takes time. Because several critical mutations are required you’d guess that what tumour cells are up to is evolving a number of tactics for outsmarting their normal counterparts on the survival front. Indeed they are. They multiply in an unregulated way (because they ignore signals that control normal cells), side-step protective mechanisms that usually kill abnormal cells, divert nutrients from normal tissue to themselves, and make new blood vessels for the delivery of food and oxygen. Perhaps most amazingly of all, they seduce and subvert cells of the immune system: these begin by trying to eliminate the tumour but end up playing a key role in its growth – a sort of co-operative corruption.

All this is why cancer needs several mutations, and these are part of a wider genetic mayhem that will kill most cells – because essential survival genes are damaged. The cells that emerge as tumour precursors are molecular freaks in that they’ve both survived and picked up a bag of dirty tricks with which to out-compete their normal brethren. So, molecularly speaking, cancers are rare events. What’s more, there’s no forethought, no premeditation at work here. If the expression ‘unintelligent design’ conveys random chance in a game of genetic roulette then it’s an excellent descriptor of cancer evolution.

Stop me if you’ve heard it

If all this is beginning to sound familiar, so it should. It’s a completely undirected process that usually fails – but when it succeeds represents an extraordinary triumph of the flexibility of DNA and hence the adaptability of cells. Familiar, of course, because it’s a form of evolution that parallels the emergence of new species.

Tree of life

In the revolution started by unveiling the structure of DNA, the biggest advance has been finding a way to work out the order of bases – the genetic code. The first complete human DNA sequence came in 2003. Since then astonishing technical advances have led to thousands of tumours and hundreds of different species being sequenced. From this you can estimate when new species arose and draw a map of the evolution of all major forms of life on earth from a single, common ancestor. The time scale is incomprehensibly vast, but the picture is stunning in its simplicity, showing how everything is related – bugs, plants, fungi and humans – and how that family has emerged over nearly four billion years. This would have delighted Charles Darwin who, in 1859, was able to define evolution by natural selection only on the basis of what he could see. Molecular biology has now revealed its foundations.

Cancer evolution

In many ways tumours do indeed behave like new species: through the acquisition of mutations they out-compete normal neighbours and establish new niches in which to survive and prosper. But tumours are not new organisms: they’re normal cells that have gone off the rails – been hijacked, if you will, by delinquent genes. The big difference is the brief time scale over which tumours develop compared with the almost infinitely slow, step-wise testing of novel genetic variants in species evolution. So becoming a tumour is a very chancy business – but it’s a lot less fraught than making a new form of life. They take any short-term growth advantage conferred by a mutation without concern for the consequences.

Short trials and lots of errors

When a cell picks up its first growth-promoting mutation it has taken an irreversible step towards a life of crime. It’s become a high roller in the cellular casino, addicted to roulette of the Russian variety, and no amount of genetic counselling will reform it. If only it could think, how our tumour cell would long for a guiding hand – a more knowing form of life that could steer its orgies of DNA destruction toward survival. Alas! Like every other life form, tumours are in thrall to the random creator called chemistry. In a tiny few the dice fall favourably and they grow to rule their kingdom – briefly. Oh for an intelligent brain to design them not to kill their life-support system! Like cellular spaceships seeking immortality in the celestial wastes without the know-how to reach escape velocity, they can only burn brightly before crashing. Tumours are indeed a microcosm of evolution, working on an abbreviated time-scale – they’re dynamic Darwinism.