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Discovering DNA’s repair crew

By David, 16 October 2015

a DNA spiral. Tw ocoloued blobs surround it.

DNA ligase repairs errors in your DNA.
Image: Tom Ellenberger, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Hidden within our cells, DNA is the hard drive of the human body. Each copy of DNA contains instructions for all the proteins needed to make a person. But this creative compendium is always under attack. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three people who found out what’s repairing our genetic treasure.

Sunburn is no laughing matter. Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) light that causes errors in DNA. Aziz Sancar looked at how cells repair this damage. As a student, he researched bacteria that repair their DNA when exposed to visible light. Later on, he uncovered how cells repair UV damage in the dark.

Tomas Lindahl studied the chemicals in DNA. DNA is a long chain of four base chemicals, but these chemicals are not entirely stable. Tomas discovered that one of these bases, cytosine, often changes into a different chemical, known as uracil. This can damage the instructions encoded in our DNA. Tomas discovered how this type of damage is fixed.

Paul Modrich looked at copying mistakes. In order to make a new cell, your body needs to make a complete copy of your DNA. But there are lots of mistakes that can happen when copying such a long chain of chemicals. Paul found evidence that copying mistakes were being repaired. Then he worked out which proteins were doing the repairs.

These three scientists each discovered how we protect our DNA from damage. This year, they share the honour of winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

More information

How our bodies repair DNA

All about the Nobel prizes

This article first appeared in Science by Email. Sign up to Science by Email to receive science news, activities and quizzes. It’s free!

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