Scientists have churned out genome sequences for everything from fungi to dogs to chimps, and they wont be letting up any time soon. However, because a genome sequence is little more than a static list of chemicals--like, say, a parts list for a 747 airplane--scientists are increasingly turning their attention to figuring out how living organisms put their genes to work. Using yeast as a testing ground, researchers at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have for the first time revealed all the "controlling elements" of an entire genome--findings that may soon contribute to a new way of understanding human health and disease. "This is really the next stage in human genome research," says Whitehead Member Richard Young, who headed the project together with Whitehead Fellow Ernest Fraenkel and MIT Computer Scientist David Gifford.
Key to understanding how the genome is controlled are gene regulators, also known as transcription factors. These small molecules intermittently land on a region of DNA, close to a particular gene, and then switch that gene on. They can also influence the amount of protein that the gene will produce. Many diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, are associated with mutated gene regulators, which is one reason why scientists are so interested in them.
The problem is that very few of these regulators have been identified in any organism. Locating their landing sites is essential to identifying their function, and therein lies the rub: Gene regulators are hard to find. They typically just land on a small stretch of DNA, do their job, and then take off again. And owing to the vastness of the genome, locating just one gene regulator with conventional lab tools can take many years. The Whitehead/MIT team, in the September 2 issue of the journal Nature, report developing a method for scanning an entire genome and quickly identifying the precise landing sites for these regulators.
David Cameron | EurekAlert!
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