Z machines and Z DNA

The Z-machine in all its glory.My desktop background images change from time to time as I come across new amazing science-related images. For a while, there was a lull so my cat Simba (from the Simba-file on the mindcast) got to stare back at me in her recent ultra-cute glamour shot in front of the fireplace.

Well move over, kitty, it’s time for the Z-machine. Click on the image to see the high resolution pic.

The Z-machine, if you may remember from episode 28, is the gymnasium-sized device that recently achieved 2 BILLION DEGREES Celsius/Kelvin. (Given that 2 billion is a rounded off figure, the measly 273 degree difference between Celsius and Kelvin is not significant.) The surprising results of their latest experiment with the world’s most powerful X-ray gun brings us one step closer to nuclear fusion power. If they never make it to using this research for practical purposes, the USA could at least boast the most awesome plasma art lamp in the world. The researchers, however, are optimistic about creating more compact and efficient Z machines to power cities in the future. The Z-machine's logoAwesome.
The Double Helix Nebula - click for hi-resBut science has also provided another artsy picture for us to gawk at this week – A nebula shaped like a strand of DNA at the center of the galaxy. (I was about to adapt this image for my desktop before the well-proportioned shot of the Z machine image came along.)

The UCLA researchers’ explanation for the structure of the nebula is intriguing – that due to the rotation of the galaxy, the strong magnetic field lines propagate from the center of the galaxy, twirling around each other. They manipulate the clouds of gas in the nebula, whipping them around each other like ripples sent down the length of a rope.

One of the things that I find fascinating about this nebula is that it not only resembles DNA with its double-helix structure, but the ‘strands’ of the nebula aren’t perfectly spaced apart, giving the appearance of a major groove and a minor groove just like in DNA. The apparent similarity of structure between the structure of our genetic material and these clouds of gas no doubt trigger our pattern-recognition software in our brains, and I anticipate this nebula joining the ranks of other mystical imagery that people use to declare that there is an intelligence outside or planet, or universe for that matter.

Creationists of many flavors point to the ‘perfect’ (define, please?) structure of DNA as evidence of things being planned out by God A designer, so what about this one? But again, like DNA, this pattern forms as a result of the laws of nature. But science is about adding systematic analysis to out intuitions, so what can we glean about this nifty nebula?

My editHere’s a good question – is it even twisting in the same direction as DNA? Most of the DNA in cells twists the same direction as a bolt or screw, known as B-DNA. After I tweaked the image in photoshop, I found that based upon which clouds pass in front of which – that this nebula does not rotate the same direction as a screw or bolt – or B-DNA. The teal lines in this edited photo show the direction or rotation that I think the nebula possesses.

If this picture is correct, and I have yet to confirm it with the scientists, it is instead twisting the opposite direction as normal DNA, an arrangement called Z-DNA. It is not as common, forming under very specific conditions.

This smaller picture shows A-DNA on the left, the typical B-DNA in the middle, and the backwards Z-DNA on the right. Click through to a Hi-Res image.

So we may not have a a giant artful structure that looks precisely like a coil of double-stranded DNA as we would normally encounter it. But hey – it’s pretty, its a double-helix of interstellar gas being twirled around by magnetic field lines that are 1000 times stronger than what we feel in our solar system way out here in an arm of the Milky Way.

But stay tuned, because sooner or later some creationist (Or Raelian cloning cultist) is going to latch onto it as interstellar proof of the divinity of DNA or something like that. But you and I will know that it is coiling backwards, which is ironically a common mistake that creationists make when drawing DNA. Sometimes biology departments and magazines get it wrong, too, but they’re not the one’s trying to say they’re smarter than the scientific community. It’s fun to point out, too, it can win point in an argument.
It’s a pretty sweet nebula, and should we get some higher resolution images of it (paging Hubble, please pick up the white courtesy phone) then you’ll find it linked here, and I will gloriously display it on my desktop. And I think if the rotation of this nebula is confirmed – they should call it the Z-DNA nebula.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

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