I know something that Nature does not know… DNA is not lefthanded

I’ve written before about Nature’s tendency to publish biologically inaccurate covers. But this one really caught my attention.

This is a cover about DNA sequencing, but the structure of the DNA molecule they show is wrong – in a crucial way. DNA is a chiral molecule – meaning it can occur in forms that differ like our right and left hands. They are similar – but are not interchangeable. DNA in our cells is normally righthanded, but the DNA pictured here is the non-natural lefthanded form.

Tom Schneider describes the difference well and has tirelessly chronicled the myriad times that left handed DNA has been erroneously portrayed in lieu of its righthanded cousin. But it’s particularly offensive that the journal that published the original structure of DNA would get its structure wrong. Here is a figure from the original paper:

It’s more than just an accident. They clearly care only about the aesthetics of their covers – and are happy to farm out to a graphic designer who doesn’t understand the biology. More distressingly, noone at Nature caught the mistake. I’m tempted to make the obvious analogy to the content of the journal, but I’ll leave that alone….

(For those of you who don’t get the title of the post – it’s a reference to The Princess Bride).

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  1. Shiran
    Posted September 11, 2010 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I once had my institute’s (CSHL) art department refuse to print my conference poster because it included a tiny project logo (in an acknowledgment box), created by a not-to-be-named federal funding agency, featuring left-handed DNA. Lab policy. Now that’s scientific integrity! (the logo has since been corrected.)

  2. Vinod
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dr Michael,

    Though i have no comments about Natureā€™s tendency to publish biologically inaccurate covers, i certainly beg to differ on your comment about Z-DNA being “non-natural lefthanded form”. I would like to highlight that there have been several reports (i can mail you a list of them if you need em) that claim though indirectly that Z-DNA is present in vivo! However, the only crux is that the formation of this left handed form is “very dynamic”.

  3. Posted September 27, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Michael Eisen said anything about Z-DNA.

  4. amand lucas
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Hi Dr. Eisen,

    Yes, left and right handed DNA models deplorably appear with about equal frequencies in popular/scientific articles or in commercial adds and artistic renditions.
    However your reference to the original Watson-Crick right-handed image is unfair inthe sense that this choice was pure luck. Only much later did single crystal X-ray diffraction prove their lucky gess correct.

  5. Rupinder Sayal
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink


    Thanks for putting this out. The problem is actually quite pervasive in media, but when a journal like Nature does it, it’s egregious.

  6. Genomania
    Posted July 27, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi,I am hoping one of you “genome-addicts” can help with this –
    As a evolutionary biologists, do you have any knowledge about a gene (s) which has no homology to any other genes, or proteins and conserved only in mammals ?I am doing a research on “Entrez Gene:83876”, does anyone have more examples like that ? (no known domain, structure, etc…). Thanks

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