International DNA Day: an interview with geneticist Michaela Šišková


International DNA Day: an interview with geneticist Michaela Šišková

25 April is a significant milestone date in the understanding of the DNA molecule. On this day in 1953, scientists published a study describing DNA as a double helix. It was a very important discovery that led to the development of modern molecular biology, and International DNA Day is celebrated in its honour every year on 25 April. To mark the occasion, we spoke to geneticist Michaela Šišková, founder of the biotechnology company DNA ERA. In what aspects of life do we use DNA? And how can knowledge of our own DNA help us take better care of our health?

Johann Gregor Mendel is considered the father of genetics. Did the scientists who described DNA in 1953 also build on his research?

The concept of heredity was described by Gregor Mendel concerning pea plants as early as 1865. At that time, however, he had no idea about the existence of DNA. It was not until four years later that the DNA molecule was first discovered (by Friedrich Miescher), but it was not linked to heredity as such. Finally in 1944, three scientists (Avery, McLeod, McCarty) were able to demonstrate unequivocally that the DNA molecule, not proteins, was responsible for heredity. 

However, exactly what this DNA molecule looked like was unknown. The concept of the structure of DNA was not introduced until less than 10 years later, when on April 25, 1953, two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, published a study describing DNA as a double helix. This was a very important discovery that led to the development of modern molecular biology, a field largely concerned with how genes control chemical processes in cells.

In what aspects of life is DNA used?

Today, the DNA molecule has applications in many fields, whether in solving crimes, paternity testing, or identifying human remains. It is also very important in medicine, where it is used to diagnose specific diseases, develop new vaccines, and treat cancer.

Thanks to technological developments, and in particular to the significant drop in the cost of simply "reading" DNA, everyone now has the opportunity to use DNA to learn about themselves. What makes us unique is written in our DNA molecules. But it's not just visible differences such as eye colour or height. It is mainly about predispositions to diseases, differences in drug metabolism, differences in response to different types of physical stress, or specifics in the body's response to the intake of important nutrients.

Why should people care about their DNA?

The DNA molecule contains all the information our cells need to function. This molecule is unique to each of us (except for identical twins) and therefore provides very valuable information that each of us can use in different ways. Am I more susceptible to cardiovascular disease? Is my body better built for endurance activities or for speed-strength activities? Am I more prone to deficiency of some important nutrient? Knowing our DNA can give us answers to all these questions.  

How can we respond to this information and how will changes in our behaviour, based on DNA information, affect our lives?

Thanks to the successful human genome sequencing project, scientists have been able to uncover many links between differences at the DNA level and interpretable traits and characteristics. We use these findings in our DNA tests and interpret more than 90 results for our customers in the areas of health, nutrition, and sports. The results of our DNA tests tell us about our customers’ genetic predisposition to develop certain traits. Fortunately, in many cases we still have our fate in our hands, as influential factors such as our lifestyle or environment often contribute to our overall risk.

Changing behaviour based on the unique information in our DNA can help us in many ways. By taking specific steps, we can reduce the risk of many diseases or detect them early through individual preventive check-ups. This unique information can also help our treating physician set up the most appropriate treatment program for us. They can help us choose the form of physical activity that is most natural for our bodies. Last but not least, they can help us design our diet so that foods do not cause us health problems nor lack any nutritional components.

As an example, a genetic predisposition may be associated with optimizing omega-3 fatty acid intake. Omega-3 fatty acids are very important nutrients for our health. Among other things, they are involved in the regulation of inflammation. The optimal daily intake of these nutrients should be 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women. However, in the case of a specific genetic predisposition, which is associated with higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, it is recommended to increase this intake even further to prevent excessive inflammation, which can lead to various health problems.

How will future developments in DNA and the human genome progress?

Thanks to technological advances, this year we have been able to read the remaining 8% or so of the human genome that we had been unable to until now. But reading the entire human genome is only the first, easier part. Understanding what a given read piece of DNA means is much more difficult. Here we still have a lot of room for improvement, because there is not much we can say about most DNA yet. And it is this interpretation that will interest many scientists around the world in the years to come. The goal is to get the best and most complete picture of what is hidden in our unique DNA.

Are you planning to use the new genome findings in your tests? 

Definitely. It is a top priority for us to ensure that our customers have results that are in line with the latest scientific knowledge. Of course, the results and interpretations of the tests may change over time as more and more links between specific sequences in DNA and given traits and characteristics are discovered. This is why our web application is also a great advantage. We can regularly update the results for our customers to continuously reflect the latest scientific studies. We are also planning to expand our DNA tests to include new traits. We are already working on implementing traits in the areas of mental and neurodegenerative diseases and beauty predispositions.

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