Explainer: The Basics of DNA and Genetic Systems
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Explainer: The Basics of DNA and Genetic Systems

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Explainer of DNA and Genetic Systems

Explainer: The Basics of DNA and Genetic Systems

While there is great diversity among living things, we all have one thing in common—we all rely on a genetic system made up of DNA and/or RNA.

But how do genetic systems work, and to what extent do they vary across species?

This graphic by Anne-Lise Paris explores the basics of DNA and genetic systems, including how they’re structured, and how they differ across species.

Composition of Genetic Systems: DNA and RNA

A genetic system is essentially a set of instructions that dictate our genetic makeup—what we look like and how we interact with our environment.

This set of instructions is stored in nucleic acids, the two main types being deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA).

While most living things rely on a mix of DNA and RNA for cellular reproduction, some viruses just use RNA to store their genetic information and replicate faster.

DNA is made up of four molecules, known as nucleotides: Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Cytosine ( C), and Guanine (G). These nucleotides are grouped in sets of two, which are called base pairs.

Size of Genomes Across Different Organisms

Human DNA is made up of approximately 3.2 billion base pairs that are tightly wound up and stored in our cells. If you were to unwind and measure the DNA stored in a single human cell, it would be about 2 meters (6.5 feet) long!

This lengthy DNA is stored in pairs of chromosomes. A full collection of chromosomes, or an entire set of genetic information, is referred to as a genome.

Genomes vary in size, depending on the organism. Here is a look at 24 different species and the size of their genomes, from animals and plants to bacteria and viruses:

OrganismKingdomSize of genomes (number of base pairs)
Poplar treePlant500,000,000
HumanAnimal3,200,000,000
ChimpanzeeAnimal3,300,000,000
Marbled lungfishAnimal130,000,000,000
DogAnimal2,400,000,000
WheatPlant16,800,000,000
PufferfishAnimal400,000,000
Canopy plantPlant150,000,000,000
Mouse-ear cressPlant140,000,000
CornPlant2,300,000,000
MouseAnimal2,800,000,000
MossPlant510,000,000
Fruit FlyAnimal140,000,000
C. ruddiiBacteria160,000
S. pombeFungi13,000,000
S. cerevisiaeFungi12,000,000
S. cellulosumBacteria13,000,000
H. pyloriBacteria1,700,000
E. coliBacteria4,600,000
Panadoravirus s.Virus2,800,000
HIV-1Virus9,700
Influenza AVirus14,000
BacteriophageVirus49,000
Hepatitis D virusVirus1,700

The Marbled Lungfish has the largest known animal genome. Its genome is made up of 130 billion base pairs, which is about 126.8 billion more than the average human genome.

Comparatively, small viruses and bacteria have fewer base pairs. The Hepatitis D virus has only 1,700 base pairs, while E. coli bacteria has 4.6 million. Interestingly, research has not found a link between the size of a species’ genome and the organism’s size or complexity.

In fact, there are still a ton of unanswered questions in the field of genome research. Why do some species have small genomes? Why do some have a ton of redundant DNA? These are still questions being investigated by scientists today.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Timeline: The Most Important Science Headlines of 2022

Join us as we look back at some of the most exciting, inspiring, and biggest science stories that made headlines in 2022.

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Scientific Headlines of 2022

Scientific discoveries and technological innovation play a vital role in addressing many of the challenges and crises that we face every year.

The last year may have come and gone quickly, but scientists and researchers have worked painstakingly hard to advance our knowledge within a number of disciplines, industries, and projects around the world.

Over the course of 2022, it’s easy to lose track of all the amazing stories in science and technology.

At a Glance: Major Scientific Headlines of 2022

Below we dive a little deeper into some of the most interesting headlines, while providing links in case you want to explore these developments further.

January 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope Arrives at its Destination

What happened: A new space telescope brings promise of exciting findings and beautiful images from the final frontier. This telescope builds on the legacy of its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched over 30 years ago.

Why it matters: The James Webb Space Telescope is our latest state-of-the-art “window” into deep space. With more access to the infrared spectrum, new images, measurements, and observations of outer space will become available.

» To learn more, read this article from The Planetary Society, or watch this video from the Wall Street Journal.

April 2022

Complete: The Human Genome

What happened: Scientists finish sequencing the human genome.

Why it matters: A complete human genome allows researchers to better understand the genetic basis of human traits and diseases. New therapies and treatments are likely to arise from this development.

» To learn more, watch this video by Two Minute Papers, or read this article from NIH

May 2022

Monkeypox Breaks Out

What happened: A higher volume of cases of the monkeypox virus was reported in non-endemic countries.

Why it matters: Trailing in the shadow of a global pandemic, researchers are keeping a closer eye on how diseases spread. The sudden spike of multinational incidences of monkeypox raises questions about disease evolution and prevention.

» To learn more, read this article by the New York Times.

June 2022

A Perfectly Preserved Woolly Mammoth

What happened: Gold miners unearth a 35,000 year old, well-preserved baby woolly mammoth in the Yukon tundra.

Why it matters: The mammoth, named Nun cho ga by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, is the most complete specimen discovered in North America to date. Each new discovery allows paleontologists to broaden our knowledge of biodiversity and how life changes over time.

» To learn more, read this article from Smithsonian Magazine

July 2022

The Rise of AI Art

What happened: Access to new computer programs, such as DALL-E and Midjourney, give members of the general public the ability to create images from text-prompts.

Why it matters: Widespread access to generative AI tools fuels inspiration—and controversy. Concern for artist rights and copyright violations grow as these programs potentially threaten to diminish creative labor.

» To learn more, read this article by MyModernMet, or watch this video by Cleo Abram.

August 2022

Dead Organs Get a Second Chance

What happened: Researchers create a perfusion system that can revitalize organs after cellular death. Using a special mixture of blood and nutrients, organs of a dead pig can be sustained after death—and in some cases, even promote cellular repair.

Why it matters: This discovery could potentially lead to a greater shelf-life and supply of organs for transplant.

» To learn more, read this article by Scientific American, or this article from the New York Times

September 2022

DART Delivers A Cosmic Nudge

What happened: NASA crashes a spacecraft into an asteroid just to see how much it would move. Dimorphos, a moonlet orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth, is struck by the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft. NASA estimates that as much as 22 million pounds (10 million kg) was ejected after the impact.

Why it matters: Earth is constantly at risk of being struck by stray asteroids. Developing reliable methods of deflecting near-Earth objects could save us from meeting the same fate as the dinosaurs.

» To learn more, watch this video by Real Engineering, or read this article from Space.com

November 2022

Falling Sperm Counts

What happened: A scientific review suggests human sperm counts are decreasing—up to 62% over the past 50 years.

Why it matters: A lower sperm count makes it more difficult to conceive naturally. Concerns about global declining male health also arise because sperm count is a marker for overall health. Researchers look to extraneous stressors that may be affecting this trend, such as diet, environment, or other means.

» To learn more, check out this article from the Guardian.

December 2022

Finding Ancient DNA

What happened: Two million-year-old DNA is found in Greenland.

Why it matters: DNA is a record of biodiversity. Apart from showing that a desolate Arctic landscape was once teeming with life, ancient DNA gives hints about our advancement to modern life and how biodiversity evolves over time.

» To learn more, read this article from National Geographic

December 2022

Fusing Energy

What happened: The U.S. Department of Energy reports achieving net energy gain for the first time in the development of nuclear fusion.

Why it matters: Fusion is often seen as the Holy Grail of safe clean energy, and this latest milestone brings researchers one step closer to harnessing nuclear fusion to power the world.

» To learn more, view our infographic on fusion, or read this article from BBC

Science in the New Year

The future of scientific research looks bright. Researchers and scientists are continuing to push the boundaries of what we know and understand about the world around us.

For 2023, some disciplines are likely to continue to dominate headlines:

  • Advancement in space continues with projects like the James Webb Space Telescope and SETI COSMIC’s hunt for life beyond Earth
  • Climate action may become more demanding as recovery and prevention from extreme weather events continue into the new year
  • Generative AI tools such as DALL-e and ChatGPT were opened to public use in 2022, and ignited widespread interest in the potential of artificial intelligence
  • Even amidst the lingering shadow of COVID-19, new therapeutics should advance medicine into new territories

Where science is going remains to be seen, but this past year instills faith that 2023 will be filled with even more progress.

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