That is why it can be recovered from patches of long-dried blood or semen in murder investigations and coaxed from the bones of ancient Neandertals. It also explains why it took scientists so long to work out how a substance so mystifyingly low key — so, in a word, lifeless — could be at the very heart of life itself.
As a known entity, DNA has been around longer than you might think. It was discovered as far back as 1869 by Johann Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss scientist working at the University of Tubingen in Germany. While delving microscopically through the pus in surgical bandages, Miescher found a substance he didn't recognize and called it nuclein (because it resided in the nuclei of cells). At the time, Miescher did little more than note its existence, but nuclein clearly remained on his mind, for twenty-three years later in a letter to his uncle he raised the possibility that such molecules could be the agents behind heredity. This was an extraordinary insight, but one so far in advance of the day's scientific requirements that it attracted no attention at all.
For most of the next half century the common assumption was that the material — now called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA — had at most a subsidiary role in matters of heredity. It was too simple. It had just four basic components, called nucleotides, which was like having an alphabet of just four letters. How could you possibly write the story of life with such a rudimentary alphabet? (The answer is that you do it in much the way that you create complex messages with the simple dots and dashes of Morse code — by combining them.)