It has been called the blueprint for life, probably because that's much easier to say.
All I know about DNA, though, I learned from watching TV. On police and forensic dramas, like CSI, a simple swab of the cheek and trip to the lab leads to either a suspect being cleared or a crime being solved. On seedy talk shows, it's used to establish parentage. On TV, DNA testing is the indisputable answer to pretty much any question - from whodunit to who's your daddy.
As of March, it can also be used to solve the mystery of your mutt.
A Beltsville-based company called MetaMorphix Inc. has begun offering a simple swab test for $65 that can tell dog owners what breeds, or at least which of the 38 most popular breeds, are in their mutts.
I was one of the first to request a "Canine Heritage" testing kit after it hit the market, and I waited for it like a kid at Christmas anticipating his first chemistry set.
The chemistry set was more exciting. The DNA test kit is basically a big brush-tipped swab in an envelope and a bunch of directions. The most challenging part was opening the clear plastic tube it came in.
Once that was accomplished, I read the directions, unsealed the swab and rubbed it on the inside of my dog Ace's cheek - a process he put up with until he decided the nylon bristles might be good to chew. Close enough to the required 30 seconds of rubbing, I removed it, stuck it back in its wrapper, filled out the paperwork and put it all back in the clear plastic tube for mailing the next day.
After that, it was just a matter of waiting - for four to six weeks - and dealing with second thoughts.
For one thing, the results of the test - assuming I latched on to enough epithelial cells with the swab - would likely end the mystery. While driven to satiate my curiosity, I hadn't stopped to think about the fun of the guessing game, the ÀôÀ appeal of not knowing. It's like the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. Entertaining the notion is thought-provoking. Knowing for certain there is none would be kind of dull.
Then, too, I pondered how mostly selfish my quest was. Ace doesn't care what he is. Would it be of any benefit to him for me to know? And does it really matter - outside the bloodline-obsessed, purity-driven world of dog shows and breeders - where a dog's heritage lies?
While dogs don't need to know if they are Rhodesian or German, Belgian or Irish, Scottish or English, an owner knowing if his or her dog is predominantly setter or shepherd, hound or terrier, may provide insight into the animal's behavior, personality and possible health issues, according to MMI Genomics, a wholly owned subsidiary of MetaMorphix.
Tom Russo, chief financial officer for MetaMorphix, said initial interest in the Canine Heritage test is coming from people who see the fun in it, "the curiosity factor." But, he added, "in the long term, people will realize they can use the test to help manage the health of their dog and help learn what to watch out for temperament-wise and disease-wise. People may treat their dogs better knowing what they are predisposed to."
The company, which has done pedigree testing for the American Kennel Club for years, was working with cattle producers when it developed a test to distinguish breeds of cattle.
"We thought why not try to do it for canines?" said Russo.
For a year, MetaMorphix kept the product in-house, using it on the dogs of employees and friends, and having a few informal guessing contests along the way. This year, it decided to make Canine Heritage available to the public in March. Between animal shelters and curious dog owners, it figured there would be some market for it.
The test results notify pet owners of the primary and secondary breeds in their dogs. It's not unusual for 10 breeds to be found, or even more.
"These are dogs that have been mixing for many, many, many generations," Russo said. "Conceivably, we could find 20 or 30 different elements."
The test detects only the 38 most popular breeds. Those breeds account for 70 percent to 80 percent of all mixed-breed dogs in the U.S., Russo said. The company may expand the test to detect more breeds in the future, but that would likely send the price up.
As Ace's DNA made its way to a lab in Davis, Calif., I realized the guessing game would soon be over. Was he a German shepherd? That's the most popular guess. Was he a retriever? I guessed not, for he loses interest in chasing balls after a throw or two. And, of course, the biggest question of all:
Did it matter?
Whenever Ace hears a squeaky toy, first he does that curious head-tilt thing dogs do. Then he has at it - intently chewing away whatever surrounds the squeaker, which he then removes and disables.
It occurs to me that my quest is a lot like that - that I'm looking for the squeaker, rather than enjoying the squeak.
For more information about the dog DNA test, go to canineheritage.com or call 1-800-DNADOG.
Tomorrow: The guessing game