Do you know what's good for you - unravelling genetic secrets


One of the greatest advances in the biomedical sciences has been the unravelling of our genetic code. This new understanding sheds light on what makes organisms function and how they are related to each other, helps to combat diseases, and to convict criminals. But it also poses great mathematical challenges: the genetic revolution is an information explosion which can only be tamed using mathematical methods.

This package brings you lots of information on how mathematicians have helped to meet this challenge. The articles listed below explore the role of maths and statistics in unravelling genomes, understanding our ancestry, fighting disease and using DNA evidence in court. If you're a teacher, you might want to explore a statistical problem surrounding the use of DNA evidence in court with our classroom activity. And if you're a student thinking about your future career, have a look at our career interview with a genetic scientist.

This package is part of a series on the role of maths and stats in the biomedical sciences, produced with generous support from the Wellcome Trust.



Unravelling genomes

Solving the genome puzzle

The human genome is represented by a sequence of 3 billion As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. With such large numbers, sequencing the entire genome of a complex organism isn't just a challenge in biochemistry. It's a logistical nightmare which can only be solved with clever algorithms. Read more..

Career interview: Scientific data analyst, life science technology

Genomics is one of the fastest moving areas of science and Gavin Harper, a mathematician and statistician, has put himself right at its centre. He works for Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a company which is developing new technology for analysing molecules and sequencing DNA. With 75 employees from 18 different countries and all sorts of scientific backgrounds, Gavin's work environment is nothing like the solitary paper-and-pencil affair traditionally associated with mathematics. Read more...

You're more than the sum of your genes

Geneticists are usually concerned with picking apart the individual genes that make up a genome, but recently biochemical engineers have decided to re-assemble all the pieces and give them a good shake. This news story from February 2009 explains that it's not just the genes themselves, but also the way in which they are organised within the genome, that determine the characteristics of an organism. Read more...

Clever coiling

Something about nature loves a helix, the ubiquitous spiral shape taken on by DNA and many other molecules found in the cells of living creatures. This news story from March 2005 explains how physicists may have a mathematical answer to why this shape is so common in nature. Read more...

Why knot: knots, molecules and stick numbers

We have depended on knots for thousands of years to hold things together. In the 1800's the mathematical theory of knots was born out of attempts to model the atom. This article from 2001 explores knot theory, and the role it plays in knotting and unknotting DNA molecules. Read more...

Fighting disease

Modelling cell suicide

This article sheds light on suicidal cells and a mathematical model that could help fight cancer. Read more...


Influenza virus: it's all in the packaging!

We have all become more aware of the dangers of influenza this year, but why is it so dangerous? Julia Gog explains that the unusual structure of the influenza genome can lead to dangerous evolutionary jumps, and how mathematics is helping to understand how the virus replicates. Read more...


Understanding the noise

All chemical reactions are probabilistic, including those acting on the information stored in the DNA inside our cells. This news story from February 2004 reports on a mathematical model that simplifies the problem of noise in monitoring molecular reactions like those involved in the expression of genes. Read more...

DNA evidence in court

It's a match

"It's a match!" cries the CSI. At first glance it might seem that if the police have matched a suspect's DNA to evidence from the crime scene, then the case is closed. But some statistical thinking is required to understand exactly what a match is, and importantly, how juries should assess this as part of the evidence in a trial. Read more...


Seeking truth with statistics

As if deciding on guilt or innocence wasn't a big enough burden for juries, many now also have to struggle with complex scientific evidence. It is vital that the statistical arguments involved are presented in a meaningful way. This article, a news story from June 2004, reports on a meeting of the Royal Statistical Society's General Applications Section that was tackling this difficult task.Read more...


Understanding our ancestry

Of pancakes, mice and men

Genes normally evolve by tiny mutations, but every now and then something more radical occurs and entire genes along a chromosome get flipped. Understanding gene flipping boils down to solving a problem from pure maths. This articles explains, taking us on a journey from waiters sorting pancakes, via one of the richest men in the world, to the genetic similarities of mice and humans. Read more...



Reconstructing the tree of life

Last year saw the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the origin of species, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author, Charles Darwin. At the heart of Darwin's theory of evolution lies a beautifully simple mathematical object: the evolutionary tree. In this article we look at how maths is used to reconstruct and understand it. Read more...

Natural selection, maths and milk

According to Darwin, natural selection is the driving force of evolution. It's a beautifully simple idea, but given the thousands of years that are involved, nobody has ever seen it in action. So how can we tell whether or not natural selection occurs and which of our traits are a result of it? In this article Charlotte Mulcare uses milk to show how maths and stats can provide genetic answers. Read more...

Classroom activity

Matching criminals

DNA profiling is an invaluable tool for the police and the courts to identify suspects. This is because it is extremely accurate: it is now routine for probabilities of 1 in a billion being quoted in court. However, when it comes to chance and probability, things aren't always as straight-forward as they seem. You have to very careful to do your sums properly before jumping to conclusions. This activity explores an example. Read more...

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