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60 years of the double helix

In February last year, American actress Angelina Jolie decided to have both breasts removed after genetic screening showed that she carried a rare mutation in a gene (BRCA1) which greatly increases her chances of developing.
breast cancer.

In July, Connor Levy was born in Philadelphia (USA) after his embryo was chosen from a batch of 13 created by in vitro fertilization. DNA screening of his entire genome had shown he had a healthy chromosome structure, unlike several of his rivals.

Meanwhile, people in Europe and North America are using much the same technology to trace their roots, like the American rapper Q-Tip, whose family was deracinated from Africa by the slave trade 300 years ago. 'Know who you are! Define a sense of cultural identity for you and your kids!" proclaims one website offering the service. Although its accuracy is sometimes exaggerated, DNA analysis has made it possible to trace all 10 000 South African carriers of the gene for a skin disease, variegate porphyria, back to just one couple of Dutch immigrants, Gerrit Jansz van Deventer and Adriaantje Jacobs, who settled in Cape Town in 1688.

These are just a few examples of how genetic and genomic technologies are beginning to encroach on our private lives, after revolutionizing the practice of medicine, agriculture, criminal investigation, insurance and even palaeontology. These developments all stem from a discovery made just 60 years ago: the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

2013 marks not only the 60th anniversary of this momentous discovery but also the tenth anniversary of the first complete description of the human genetic code (human genome). Together with the Human Variome Project, which is now cataloguing the variety of human genetic mutations worldwide to improve diagnosis and treatment, UNESCO celebrated these twin anniversaries on 10 June with an international conference and exhibition at its Paris Headquarters. The event celebrated Sixty Years of DNA, from the Double Helix to the Human Variome, through the Human Genome.


Read "60 years of the double helix", A World of Science, vol. 11, no 4