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A Gem of a Gene

By Jeffrey Kluger
Jun 1, 1993 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:40 AM


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If you are a male--or have ever lived in the vicinity of one--you know that there is at least one job every man is utterly incapable of performing competently. For some it may be wrapping a gift without using at least a kilometer of Scotch tape. For others it may be folding a shirt without turning it into something resembling an origami frog. For guys like me, the thing that seems to present the greatest problem is shopping for women’s jewelry.

The last time I went looking for a romantic bauble, I wound up leaving the store with a pair of earrings that weighed slightly more than a modest washer-dryer combination and contained a collection of semi- precious stones that turned out to be one step up the ladder of preciousness from Jujyfruits. The luckless recipient of the gift smiled gamely, then consigned the intended treasure to that lost spot in the closet where puka shells, mood rings, and ID bracelets go to die. This kind of gift-buying ineptitude explains why guys like me tend to panic on big wedding anniversaries like the silver, gold, and diamond; we do much better on the less momentous ones, like the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth-- otherwise known as the lawn furniture, office supplies, and Veg-O-Matic anniversaries.

For us aesthetically challenged folks, however, things are about to get a lot easier. Now in development is a revolutionary type of jewelry that could one day relegate the ordinary necklace, bracelet, or brooch to the safe-deposit box of history. This new breed of bangle, conceived by a company called Stargene, in La Jolla, California, would feature not diamonds, rubies, or sapphires but something a lot more precious, if a lot more gooey: human DNA. For the last two years, the whizzes at Stargene have been toying with a line of unconventional amulets that could contain bits of the genetic code for any human being, from Abe Lincoln to Mick Jagger to the members of your own family. True, molecular strands of organic acids have not traditionally been considered things of beauty, but Stargene believes that by the end of the decade precious stones could be competing with chromosomes as the gift of choice for even the most hopeless romantic.

The idea of saving tidbits of special people for sentimental purposes is not a new one. For centuries, soldiers going into battle have carried locks of their wives’ or sweethearts’ hair as both good luck charm and memento. (A harmless custom in short clashes like Operation Desert Storm, this has presented problems during longer conflicts like the Thirteen Years’ War, when most of the female population of Prussia began to bear a disturbing resemblance to Jackie Coogan.) Proud parents of newborns are dedicated collectors of organic mementos, too, routinely pasting their baby’s first locks of hair, first teeth, and, on occasion, first pets and playmates into family scrapbooks. Some people even theorize that the 5,000- year-old Ice Man recently uncovered in the Italian Alps may have been an early, somewhat extreme attempt at preserving an artifact of a loved one-- an attempt that failed when the frosty relic proved impossible to fold into the photo section of a Late Stone Age wallet.

Two years ago it occurred to California biochemist Kary Mullis that he might be able to develop a more portable way of commemorating special people, by using just the DNA that made them so special in the first place. As anyone who has ever taken a high school chemistry course or played the home version of Jeopardy can tell you, DNA is the double- stranded helix found in all our cells that serves as our basic genetic blueprint. While this explanation seems sensible enough, if you ask most people just what it means, they will generally stare at you confusedly, insist they had no idea they were entering the Double Jeopardy round, and argue that they must at least have won the American Tourister luggage by now. But the basics of DNA, at least, aren’t all that complicated.

DNA strands, which are found in all living things, are made up of building blocks called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of a sugar molecule, a phosphate, and one of four kinds of molecules known as bases-- adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. The arrangement of millions of nucleotides along the strands is like an instruction manual for the development of the overall organism, determining if it is going to be house cat or housefly, dinosaur or dik-dik, higher primate or NFL lineman. For biologists, the discovery of DNA was both good news and bad news: good news because if you could figure out the nucleotide code you could in theory learn everything about an organism down to its likely life span, its genetic diseases, and whether it has any chance of making the Pro Bowl; bad news because just one gene can be made up of 500 pairs of nucleotides, and complicated organisms like human beings include about 100,000 genes, which makes reading an entire strand of DNA about as engaging as reading a year’s worth of daily NASDAQ listings, only with fewer laughs.

In 1983, Mullis, then a chemist with the biotech company Cetus, came up with a way to isolate tiny stretches of a few hundred nucleotides along a DNA strand and replicate them millions of times over, so they could easily be read by scientists. The technique, known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, won Mullis and Cetus instant international acclaim, and in 1990 the company sold the PCR patent for a staggering $300 million to the Swiss drug company Hoffmann-LaRoche. Since Cetus (which has since been folded into another biotech company, Chiron) owned the PCR process, it kept the entire three-tenths of a billion--an amount Mullis could never hope to recoup without stealing an incredible number of Post-it Notes from the office supply closet.

Two years ago, however--after Mullis helped found another biotech company, called Atomic Tags--he came up with another way to make a dollar off DNA. The brainstorm occurred one weekend when he and some colleagues were visiting New Orleans for a couple of days of reveling and professional conferencing.

I was having a fairly raucous evening with some friends, Mullis recalls, and we were talking about dinosaur DNA and whether it could ever be reproduced. We started saying that if it ever was copied, the Nature Company could probably make a lot of money selling it to the public. Then someone said, ‘You know whose DNA people would really be interested in? Elvis’s.’ We realized there are millions of Elvis fans out there and if we could sequence his DNA, we could sell it in jewelry or something.

Mullis mentioned the inspiration to his colleague Ron Cook, an organic chemist with Siris Laboratories in Marin County, California, and right from the start the two researchers saw some problems. For one thing, despite credible reports that Elvis is alive and well and working in a Red Lobster in Sandusky, Ohio, most people agree that he indeed left the arena for good in 1977, taking all his DNA with him. What’s more, even if there were some way to unearth enough Presley particles to copy in the lab, they would not exactly lend themselves to jewelry. DNA molecules, like most molecules, have a troublesome tendency to be utterly invisible without the aid of a multimillion-dollar scanning-tunneling microscope, something most folks don’t have handy when you want to show off your new charm bracelet.

With a little brainstorming, however, Mullis and Cook realized that neither drawback was insurmountable. For the problem of displaying the DNA, Mullis says, we talked to a designer who came up with the idea of using transparent stones with channels cut into them. The channels would be filled with liquid and tiny glass beads coated with DNA. When the jewelry moved, you could see the beads move. While the DNA itself would be invisible, the moving beads would let people know there was something inside the gem.

The other problem--deciding exactly whose genetic material would star in the new jewelry--was even easier to solve. There are little remains of famous dead people all over, says Mullis. There is blood and other stuff in hospitals and labs. Since all of a person’s DNA is included in every cell in the body, if you could get just a tiny bit of this material, you’d have enough to do PCR.

Among the famous ex-people whose morsels are still among us are Albert Einstein, whose entire brain is reportedly preserved in a lab somewhere in the Midwest; Abraham Lincoln, who left blood and bone samples behind after his death; Tutankhamen, who has been kept almost as fresh as the Ice Man but without any of that nasty freezer burn; and gangster John Dillinger, who, as any schoolboy can tell you, is rumored to have left behind more than just his house, his car, and his pinkie ring.

In addition to such former DNA producers, genetic material could also be harvested from any number of famous, not-yet-departed volunteers. Anybody who’s somebody’s hero would be a good candidate for a DNA product, says Mullis. Stars like Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, or Billy Joel would be perfect for people of my generation. Anyone like Madonna or other people on MTV would be perfect for my kids’ generation. All we’d have to do is find out who’s hot and approach them. As soon as we got one celebrity, others would follow.

Donating DNA would be a snap for the stars, since even the dead cells in a single hair contain usable DNA. For celebrities like rock star Sinéad O’Connor (who obviously doesn’t have the locks to spare) or political superstar Joseph Biden (whose hair already appears to have been transplanted from an unsuspecting Chia Pet), a tiny flake of dry skin or a couple of drops of blood would be more than sufficient. To allay the celebrities’ fears that once their genes were out on the market backyard chemists would use them for all manner of ghastly experiments, Mullis would inactivate the DNA. This precaution would be especially important when the donors in question were musical stars, since nobody would want to see some clone-happy jewelry buyer create the Dave Clarke 105, the 44 Tops, or the Eight Seasons.

After Mullis and Cook got these details worked out, they officially launched Stargene. As with so many other fledgling entrepreneurs, their first order of business was to take a good, loving look at their prospective product--and then change it completely. Although jewelry seemed like a great concept, they realized right from the start that it would also be expensive to manufacture. So Mullis and Cook decided to put the DNA gems on the shelf temporarily and get their company off the ground with a far less complicated product: DNA trading cards.

What we came up with, Mullis says, was a card made of the same material as a credit card. On one side would be an artist’s rendering of the person’s face, along with a tiny bump that would contain a real--though invisible--bit of DNA. On the back would be information about the person and a sequence of letters representing the nucleotides in the DNA under the bubble. The card might not be as dramatic as jewelry, but it would be more educational. Also, since there’s already a market for baseball cards out there, we figured we could tap right into it.

Stargene has now developed a prototype card--featuring Albert Einstein--that could be ready in a couple of months. Since Mullis and his colleagues will only be using the card to attract investors, it won’t, for the time being, contain any DNA; it will, however, come with a small booklet explaining what DNA and PCR are and describing Einstein’s career, accomplishments, and, presumably, his home run totals and fielding percentage.

If the prototype sparks interest, Stargene could have a real DNA card--costing as little as five dollars--out on the market in perhaps a year or two. In the meantime the company has a lot of work ahead, deciding just which stars should be featured on its cards. The job may not be as easy as it appears. Madonna, for example, seems like a natural Stargene gold mine, but critics point out that--with the exception of a bit of spleen tissue she may have overlooked--she has already photographed and published just about every visible cell in her body. Similarly, Jerry Garcia, who would have obvious appeal to legions of Grateful Dead fans, may simply not have the cellular material to spare; music industry insiders report that since the 1960s Garcia has been operating on just six brain cells, three of which he is said to have borrowed from fellow band member Bob Weir. Among the other celebrities who might present trouble for Stargene are:

Former governor and coffee table Michael Dukakis, whose DNA has been found to be indistinguishable from that of ordinary oak.

Molecular biologist Robert Gallo, who appears to have gotten any DNA he needed from French colleague Luc Montagnier.

Entertainer and Venusian Michael Jackson, whose DNA has yet to be located.

Actress Shirley MacLaine, who insists that geneticists had already reproduced her DNA when scientists began cloning Lincoln’s.

Former success Donald Trump, whose entire genome has now gone into receivership and is being sold in two-chromosome lots at public auction.

Former vice president Dan Quayle, who thinks DNA is how you spell his first name.

As long as Stargene can avoid these and other genetic mistakes, the future of the enterprise could be bright. If the celebrity cards and jewelry sell well, the company is also considering a line of personal DNA products--tailor-made jewelry or mantelpiece items that would contain not the DNA of some celebrity but of you, your spouse, or any other family member who deserved genetic commemoration. And for the clueless husband about to buy his wife yet another pair of Statue of Liberty earrings with garnets for eyes, it could mean avoiding the kind of carat that always seems to earn him a stick.


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