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Home » How Our Changing DNA Keeps Us Alive: Linda Chelico (Transcript)

How Our Changing DNA Keeps Us Alive: Linda Chelico (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Professor Linda Chelico’s talk titled “How Our Changing DNA Keeps Us Alive” at TEDxUniversityofSaskatchewan 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Blueprint of Life

Thank you. That’s DNA. It is sometimes called the blueprint of life. I’m sure we’ve all heard that before. Well, in some ways it is true. You can’t change your eye color, for example, but in many ways it really isn’t. Our DNA changes every day. DNA is actually getting damaged every day by external factors like UV rays from the sun or internal factors like chemicals.

Humans do encode in their DNA proteins that can repair that damage, but those processes can’t repair everything. For instance, when you go out into the sun and get exposed to UV without sunscreen, you can get a burn. That is your DNA getting so damaged that it can’t be repaired. The protective effect is to let those skin cells die.

However, most times your DNA repair can repair that sun damage, but my advice is don’t let those proteins work too hard. Mistakes over time can be dangerous. This is best illustrated by some rare diseases where DNA repair proteins don’t work properly. For one of these, a symptom is the onset of skin cancer at the age of eight years old, nearly 50 years younger than the general U.S. population.

Mutations: Good and Bad

This is part of the reason why cancer, a disease of DNA damage that does not get repaired properly, increases with age. The improperly repaired DNA damage causes mutations in the DNA. However, mutations are not all bad. Although mutations can cause cancer, in some situations, in other situations, they can also result in beneficial evolution. Mutations formed humans as a species and every other organism on the planet. Organisms evolve by acquiring mutations.

But how does biology decide what are good and what are bad mutations? I think of it like this. When we encounter uncertainties in life, it incites an uncomfortable feeling, one that can result in an attempt to bring things back to the status quo, repair the damage and bring things back to the way they were. However, sometimes inaction is not an option.

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