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Signing

While I am pretty confident that we are far from being on a majority in our household, I am also sure that we are not unduly exceptional. We sit down to lunch each day at 1230 so that we can simultaneously masticate and educate. The first refuelling the body. The latter refuelling the intellect.

And the source of brain food? The daily press conference on the pandemic from the Government. The traditional being from fridge and food cupboard.

It's a bit like the family sitting around the radio 75 plus years ago to hear news of the battles against the nazis. Today is remarkably similar. Not a single front of battle but many. Not just fought by those on the front line, but supported by the actions of those on the home front.

Even more than then, the home front is a critical part of the front line. Each citizen's actions, or inaction, directly contributing to or hindering our ability to eliminate COVID-19 from our country.

For me, with an interest in DNA as a tool in my family history research, the deployment of genome sequencing to understand the source of each variant of the virus is particularly interesting. It's proving a vital tool in the Test, Trace, Isolate, Support strategy to quickly shutdown each flareup, understand where it came from, and stop the virus sub-type which was responsible from moving on to infect others.

This tool depended on the Watson-Crick partnership in the early 1950s which discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and through that, an understanding of how it replicates itself. And more fundamentally where the opportunities for change took place.

In a sense, with DNA we are back in the pre-Gutenberg age. Before the invention of the moving type printing press in the early 1400s, books were produced by the laborious manual copying of an original manuscript. All done by hand and eye. Both organs were capable of error, together with the potentially corrupting influence of mental distraction or inattention.

Some copying errors in the newly created book would be benign; leaving meaning unchanged even while the representation of it had been amended. Indeed the monks, the intellectual footsoldiers of their day and who made up the majority of the transcribers, were not averse to deliberately introducing changes to the script. They corrected what they thought were errors, and sought to improve the expression of the ideas. Some ideologues would also deliberately change the message.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus which is causing such a problem just now is not a particularly complex piece of material. Unlike some higher-order viruses, it only has a single strand of RNA not a double strand of DNA.

But the reproduction of the virus can only take place in a host cell. As a standalone item, the virus does not live. The multiplication of the virus carries the potential for change to the genetic material within it. Some will have no effect on its function. Other changes may enhance or attenuate its effects.

Like research into my family tree where I increasingly depend on seeing the evolution of DNA as a way of confirming my personal lineage, our public health teams are building up knowledge of the ancestry of each infection.

The language of DNA is deceptively simple. It has only four letters; G, C, A and T (abbreviating the chemicals guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine). A "G" will always be linked to a "C" and an "A" to a "T". So should be simple? No. It took thirteen years (1990 to 2003) for the Human Genome Project to determine our species genetic map. Read more at https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project.

I am a layperson in this area of scientific knowledge, albeit one with some training in the use of DNA matching for family tree research. And I have a long list of reading on this whole subject as it relates to the genetic material in viruses. Roll on a few wet days so I may make a start. If you want to follow me, you may wish to start with clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), as I plan to. But let's leave that for now.

It's all a classic whodunnit. The criminal, in this case, our nasty pandemic virus, leaves its fingerprints at the scene of the crime. A personal signature to identify its authorship of our misery.

In politics, the elected will find themselves using their signature for rather more benign purposes. Letters to constituents. Documents of one sort or another. As a Government Minister, I signed 4,990 letters during my time in office. So one's signature as an MSP becomes publically available. There's a potential danger in that.

I have a signature that I use in my role as an elected member. It's significantly different from the one I use for personal purposes, such as signing my will. Thus was it ever to be copied for unapproved purposes, we can work out where it has come from.

How we write has changed over the generations. And I suspect that we are not far off ceasing to use pens at all. With the advent of better and better voice recognition, even the keyboard my disappear.

I have always said that the final triumph of computer technology will come when we no longer know we are using one.

We are getting close to that point.

But we shall still be proving signatures in one form or another for generations to come.

But it might simply be our DNA.

It is who we are.

And speaks to where we're from.



2020-07-15 Correction: Reference to "SARS-CoV-19" virus has been amended to be "SARS-CoV-2 virus".

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