A major discovery:
It turns out that “junk DNA”, once thought to comprise most of the genetic material packed into our cells, isn’t junk. Instead, it plays a complicated — and still shadowy — role in regulating our genes.
That’s the essential insight of a five-year project to study the 98 percent of the human genome that is not, strictly speaking, genes. It now appears that more than three-quarters of our DNA is active at some point in our lives.
“This concept of ‘junk DNA’ is really not accurate. It is an outdated metaphor to explain our genome,” said Richard Myers, one of the leaders of the 400-scientist Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project, nicknamed Encode.
“The genome is just alive with stuff. We just really didn’t realize that before,” said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in England.
The new insights are contained in six papers published Wednesday in the journal Nature. More than 20 related papers from Encode are appearing elsewhere.
The human genome consists of about 3 billion DNA “letters” strung one to another in 46 chains called chromosomes. Specific stretches of those letters (whose formal name is “nucleotides”) carry the instructions for making specific proteins. Those proteins, in turn, build the cells and tissues of living organisms.
The Human Genome Project, which identified the correct linear sequence of those letters, revealed that human cells contain only about 21,000 genes — far fewer than most biologists predicted. Furthermore, those genes took up only 2 percent of the cell’s DNA. The new research helps explain how so few genes can create an organism as complex as a human being.
The answer is that regulating genes — turning them on and off, adjusting their output, manipulating their timing, coordinating their activity with other genes — is where most of the action is.
The importance and subtlety of gene regulation is not a new idea. Nor is the idea that parts of the genome once thought to be “junk” may have some use. What the Encode findings reveal is the magnitude of the regulation.
It now appears that at least 4 million sections of the genome are involved in manipulating the activity of genes. Those sections act like switches in a wiring diagram, creating an almost infinite number of circuits.
“There is a modest number of genes and an immense number of elements that choreograph how those genes are used,” said Eric D. Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, the federal agency that paid for the research.
So every cell of every living organism contains not just genetic information but a whole system for activating, directing, timing, and animating that information.
We sure are lucky that millions of years of random mutations and natural selection evolved into something so infinitely complex.
Oh, wait. All of that had to be in place in order to make reproduction possible; that is, before natural selection could happen.