Unicode, the standards body that decides which emojis we all need on our phones and laptops, is finally adding a bunch of science emojis to the mix, including DNA – but there’s confusion over the style of the doodle that will eventually get used.
That’s because one of the samples shown by Unicode and Emojipedia shows DNA strands twisting to the left, as they do on the less common Z-DNA.
For the most common B-DNA structure, the one that is responsible for the origins of life, the twists should be right-handed.
The difference isn’t easy to spot at first, but it’s crucial in dictating the way the ladders of DNA are structured – it’s like going down a spiral staircase clockwise or anticlockwise, with one state the complete mirror image of the other.
Researchers have been quick to point out that Unicode and Emojipedia has gone for a spiral that twists in the wrong direction – or at least in the more obscure, less common direction.
However, the original draft of the new emojis for 2018 had the DNA emoji twisting in the correct way, so it seems there’s some confusion about which one will eventually get used.
If you’re struggling to understand what we mean, point your index finger away from you, push out your hand and rotate your finger in a clockwise direction – you’re drawing DNA in the air. If you rotate your finger anticlockwise, you’re drawing Z-DNA.
All is not lost though: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and the rest all design their own emoji styles on top of whatever Unicode puts forward – that’s why emojis look different from device to device and app to app.
So there’s still hope these tech giants may not totally stuff up, and the final emoji designs on our devices will end up spiralling the right way.
In the meantime, scientists are busy pointing out the mistake. It may not matter too much in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re going to have a DNA emoji, you might as well make sure you get it right.
Other science-related emojis in the list of 157 new ones rolling out this year include a magnet, a test tube, and a petri dish (there’s a full list at Emojipedia). Before too long then, you should be able to have much more meaningful emoji-based science conversations with your friends.
DNA’s double-helical structure, which creates the twisting pattern, was discovered way back in 1953, with a right-handed spiral.
Since then scientists have wondered what caused that right-handed bias. One idea is that cosmic rays destroyed the left-handed ancestors of DNA on the early Earth, but at the moment we really don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that DNA should have a right-handed spiral, and flipping it over to show a mirror image is wrong – just as wrong as trying to exactly duplicate the actions of a right hand with a left hand.
This isn’t the first time this mistake has been made – the same error has appeared in textbooks and in graphics many times in the past – and we can’t get too angry when we’re getting skateboards and kangaroos added to our emoji vocabulary.
Now though, you should all know what to look out for. When the emojis eventually land on your phone, take a close look to see which way the DNA strand is twisted.