Puzzle Me This

Looking at words on many different levels

Mary Beth Aberlin
Sep 30, 2017

ANDRZEJ KRAUZEA secret I would like to share: I am addicted. My particular compulsion is the need to try my hand at any word puzzle I encounter: crosswords, double-crostics, whirlpools, switchbacks, scrambles, you name it. Midair, thumbing through in-flight magazines; in doctors’ waiting rooms; perusing the tabloids; wherever, I’m licking my pencil. I have withdrawal pangs if I can’t get my hands on the two puzzle pages published every Sunday in The New York Times Magazine. I have a crush on Will Shortz.

One of my favorite types of word teasers (sadly, not found in the Times) is the cryptogram, which requires deciphering a quote or sentence encoded using the 26 letters of the English alphabet. I love cryptograms because they allow me to fantasize about what it might have been like to be at Bletchley during WWII (obviously, a most elementary-level fantasy).

Of course, the work of Alan Turing and all those dedicated to cracking the Enigma code contributed to the invention of modern-day computers and their storage of information using binary units of 0 and?1. It makes me wonder how astonished those codebreakers would be if they could read this month’s cover story about encoding messages in DNA to solve the problem of how to store the mind-boggling amounts of data generated in this day and age. In “Making DNA Data Storage a Reality,” our new assistant editor Catherine Offord reports on how researchers, using admittedly gimmicky proofs of concept (a poster, a book, a movie, and a computer operating system, among others), are capitalizing on the incredible capacity of the double helix—derived from its four-base sequence—to archive “well into the millions of gigabytes per gram.” Sounds great, but there are practical challenges that range from the actual machines used to construct the DNA fragments, to data-storage and reading errors, to picking and choosing exactly the particular data one wishes to retrieve. It’s a fascinating story.

The writing and reading of DNA code figure centrally in several other stories in this issue. A profile of Harvard Medical School’s Stephen Elledge details his career spent determining how eukaryotic cells have an internal sensing and signaling system to respond to DNA damage. Elledge describes the molecule’s initial lure thus: “The fact that you could take [DNA] apart and put it back together and test ideas on genes—that totally blew my mind.” In “Designer DNA,” Rachel Berkowitz describes some of the computational tools available to synthetic biologists for reducing sequence errors, predicting protein structure, gleaning function from sequence data, and improving the design of gene circuits that work together. For a red-hot tinkering technique, check out the CRISPR patent primer here.

Coding data into DNA and decoding it from the resulting sequence really does have an allure akin to solving word puzzles. When, out of the blue, puzzle-makers extraordinaire Henry Cox and Emily Rathvon contacted The Scientist offering to supply us with science-related word puzzles, they tapped right into my addiction. No way was I going to refuse this offer from two more of my puzzle-making heroes. So you will note some changes to our quotes page, “Speaking of Science.” This month features the duo’s first offering: a crossword puzzle.

At TS, words are important to us. Why? A recent paper in eLife finds that the lingo in scientific journals has made research articles unintelligible to all but the most highly educated, leaving lay readers more often than not at a loss to understand the relevance of published findings. Decoding scientific literature is what we love to do, and we constantly strive to bring you well-written and timely articles that are as jargon-free as we can make them. 

Mary Beth Aberlin  Editor-in-Chief