Monthly Archives: October 2006

Mirror, mirror, on the wall — who’s the prettiest molecule?

In an ambitious attempt to transform our current scientific abilities, the X Prize foundation has announced the much-anticipated sequencing prize. 100 human genomes in 10 days is a hard task indeed, but harder yet? Doing it left-handed!

DNA is, of course, a right-handed helix. I was alerted to this invasion from the mirror universe by the Left Handed DNA Hall of Fame, where you can find a collection of many entertaining mistakes.

I know it’s nit-picking, but I found this photo in Science magazine reporting on a prize specifically meant for DNA technology, so I find the X Prize Foundation’s error especially deplorable. For them to get that sort of thing wrong… well, it hints at a disconnect with the actual science, obliviously taking artistic liberties in the pursuit of some media attention.

(Science 13 October 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5797, p. 232)

It seems to me that the prize conditions also reflect hype and media-pandering rather than a sincere understanding of efforts to improve sequencing technology. 10 million for 100 genomes in 10 days? Why is speed important? Why not encourage low cost sequencing? There was no cost limit announced; a company could conceivably spend much more than 10 million merely to get the prestige of the prize. That is, after all, what happened with the space prize.

If you were getting your genome sequenced, which would you rather buy: a one day wait for $100,000? Or a three month wait for $1,000? You’ve lived with those genes for decades, I doubt you’re eager to spend a lot more money just to find out a little sooner. The real future is in cheap sequencing, not fast sequencing.

PS – Yeah, I know zDNA is left-handed, but you can’t honestly think that this artist was intending to represent that.

PPS – What drew my eye to the picture initially were other aspects — even flipped, this is a terrible representation of DNA. There should be only 10 bases for every turn of the double-helix (I see about 20 here). Also, the two helices are evenly spaced; they should be closer to each other so they look more like a pair twisting around (as in the cartoon), thereby forming the “major” and “minor” grooves of DNA. Lastly, the helix looks stretched-out… it isn’t twisting nearly enough with respect to its width.