Friday, September 07, 2012

Encode Project Opens Unimagined Vistas of Discovery

The more we learn about the mechanisms of life, the more we discover there is yet to be learned. Results from the "Encode Project" have reminded us of how little we know about the human genome and epigenome -- while at the same time opening the door to previously unimagined possibilities for discovery and scientific advancement. With this new opportunity for acquiring vast new knowledge, the road to longer lifespans and better brains has just gotten wider, smoother, and more solid.

We are just beginning to learn how our genes are regulated on a moment to moment basis. If we are to achieve our goals for longer, more capable, and more fulfilling lives, we will have to use all of our wits and tools -- and develop a lot of new ones.
When the Human Genome Project revealed that only around two percent of the genome is made up of protein-coding genes, it was suggested that the rest was made up of "junk DNA". The unsatisfactory conclusion left many geneticists skeptical, and Encode's findings now prove beyond doubt that the theory was way off mark.

The new research instead shows that 80 percent of the 98% unaccounted for has some kind of biochemical function, with 10,000 genes tasked with regulating the DNA responsible for coding proteins -- these 10,000 are responsible for building single-strand RNA molecules that regulate the 20,000 protein-coding genes. The mass of otherwise unaccounted for DNA actually represents a series of around four million "switches" that regulate other genes, and around nine percent of DNA helps code these switches (the figure could end up being nearer 20 percent, however).

...Encode has its work cut out. Having identified these millions of genes and investigated what turns them on an off, the team needs to track how they are connected and which genes they control. This will prove particularly challenging, considering genes in the three-dimensional genome are not mapped out in a straightforward manner -- a gene-controlling switch could be located somewhere entirely different from the gene it controls. Understanding the complex circuit route is key to understanding the human genome while, according to Birney, identification of the entire genome is only about 10 percent done.


A User's Guide to the ENCODE Project (PDF)

First came the Human Genome Project, focusing on protein-coding genes. Next came the Encode Project, focusing on genes that regulate other genes. Now we will have to learn how the entire complex works together, for the sake of a better human future.



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