As I See It: The Long And Intertwined Road
May 7, 2018 Victor Rozek
I’m part Neanderthal. No, that’s not just my wife’s opinion. Nor is it an unkind conclusion based on observation, although that could be open to debate. In fact, my wife is part Neanderthal, too, a data point that invites further comment but could only get me into trouble.
The bearer of this startling revelation is an organization long celebrated for its examination of such diverse, yet interconnected subjects as history, culture, science, and the environment. Its playground was, and continues to be, planet Earth. From its early days as a sponsor of exploration; to producing a publication so beloved that, in many households, copies were saved for generations; to its digital cable and satellite television network, National Geographic introduced us to the world’s wonders, and made even the most complex subjects approachable.
One such complexity is the study of human origins and the tracking of migration patterns through DNA analysis. For a modest fee, my wife and I contributed to the ongoing research by simply spitting into a vile – a process no doubt simplified to accommodate Neanderthals.
The Geno 2.0 Next Generation test looks for DNA markers, some of which occurred over 100,000 years ago. Markers are essentially random mutations, naturally occurring, and usually benign. They act as “beacons” and can be mapped across time as they are passed from generation to generation. Discovering the earliest evidence of a specific marker, identifying where in the world it originated, and where it eventually settled, provides insight into patterns of human movement – clues to where our ancestors came from, and where they ended up.
The “where they came from” part is comparatively easy because human life originated in Africa. We know this because all humans descend from a common mother (known as Mitochondrial Eve), plus, the oldest human remains were discovered in Africa. As far as science can determine, no snakes or apples were involved.
Our ancestors probably left Africa because of persistent drought, and followed herd migrations to more fertile locales. When they arrived in what is now Europe, they would have encountered Neanderthals. Apparently, my peeps liked to do a little inter-species partying, which is how a small amount of Neanderthal DNA was introduced into my gene pool. And possibly yours. All non-Africans today carry Neanderthal DNA.
If there is an upside to sharing common ancestry, it’s that any idiot can accurately claim kinship to some of the more exceptional exemplars of our species – if you look back far enough. I, for example, share genetic scraps with two founding fathers (Franklin and Jefferson), a megalomaniac (Napoleon), and the original “let them eat cake” party girl, Marie Antoinette. I also shared some distant spit with Copernicus, Tolstoy, Genghis Khan, and the “let them eat jellied eels” monarch, Queen Victoria. An illustrious ancestry to be sure, but I have to go back 45,000 to 65,000 years to claim it. More recently, which is to say sometime between 25,000 and 12,000 years ago, I shared a paternal DNA match with none other than Abraham Lincoln. Alas, after that, the exceptionally intelligent people appear to have diverged from my branch of the ancestral tree.
If DNA can track our past, it may also point the way to a future breakthrough in computing. DNA computing is a branch of computing which, not surprisingly given its name, substitutes DNA, biochemistry, and molecular biology for what we commonly call hardware.
This field of study was developed back in 1994 by Leonard Adleman of the University of Southern California. Adleman is perhaps best known as the creator of the RSA encryption algorithm for which he won the prestigious 2002 Turing Award. The genius of RSA is that the encryption key is public, but the decryption key remains private.
Like human migration, DNA computing is slow. But like humans working in consort, it can get a hell of a lot done. The response time of a DNA-computer is measured in minutes, or hours, or even days, rather than milliseconds. But it compensates for its turtle-like nature with potential for a ridiculously high number of parallel computations. Millions or even billions of molecules can interact with each other simultaneously. But because it operates at a molecular level, it is much harder to analyze the answers. Ironically, DNA systems require about as much time to carry out complex calculations as simple ones.
Certainly the battle against cancer has proven to be inordinately complex, and progress is measured in cellular increments. But back in 2004, five Israelis at the Weizmann Institute of Science announced in the journal Nature that they had “constructed a DNA computer coupled with an input and output module which would theoretically be capable of diagnosing cancerous activity within a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug upon diagnosis.”
Beyond the Fantastic Voyage aspects of this technology, DNA computing also excels at data transfer and memory capacity. (For the unimaginably young, Fantastic Voyage was a 1966 movie in which a miniaturized submarine, complete with miniaturized people, is injected into the bloodstream of a scientist to save him from a blood clot. I only remember it because it starred Raquel Welch who spoke loudly to the Neanderthal within.)
It is estimated that a DNA-computer with one liter of fluid containing six grams of DNA could potentially have a mind-boggling memory capacity of 3,072 exabytes (one exabyte being equal to 1 quintillion bytes, or 1 billion gigabytes). And due to, what only a writer who shares Tolstoy’s DNA would describe as “unparalleled parallelism,” data calculation speeds could – at least in theory – reach 1,000 petaflops (a single petaflops is one thousand million million floating point operations per second.) That be fast.
Maybe the Grateful Dead said it best: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” From sharing DNA with Neanderthals, to applying DNA to computing, the human journey has been long and wondrous, and it stretches out beyond our ability to see. Like it or not, we are all intertwined, distant relations, here for an evolutionary instant and then returned to the mystery. As science is helping us to understand, in a world filled with the painful consequences of us-against-them, there is really only “us.”
In the interest of full disclosure, the average amount of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, for those who have it, is 1.3 percent. But I, being above average in all things, boast a 1.5 percent infusion. And so does my wife.
It explains a lot.