NEW YORK - A colossal international effort has yielded the first comprehensive look at how our DNA works, an encyclopedia of information that will rewrite the textbooks and offer new insights into the biology of disease.
For one thing, it may help explain why some people are more prone to common ailments such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
The findings, reported Wednesday by more than 500 scientists, reveal extraordinarily complex networks that tell our genes what to do and when, with millions of on-off switches.
"It's this incredible choreography going on, of a modest number of genes and an immense number of ... switches that are choreographing how those genes are used," said Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which organized the project.
Several scientists from Washington University's Genome Institute helped generate data for the project.
Most people know that DNA contains genes, which hold the instructions for life. But scientists have long known those genetic blueprints take up only about 2 percent of the genome, and their understanding of what's going on in the rest has been murky.
Similarly, they have known that the genome contains regulators that control the activity of genes, so that one set of genes is active in a liver cell and another set in a brain cell, for example. But the new work shows how that happens on a broad scale.
It's "our first global view of how the genome functions," sort of a Google Maps that allows both bird's-eye and close-up views of what's going on, said Elise Feingold of the genome institute.
Though scientists already knew the detailed chemical makeup of the genome, "we didn't really know how to read it," she said in an interview. "It didn't come with an instruction manual to figure out how the DNA actually works."
One key participant, Ewan Birney of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Hinxton, England, compared the new work to a first translation of a very long book.
"The big surprise is just how much activity there is," he said. "It's a jungle."
The trove of findings was released in 30 papers published by three scientific journals, while related papers appear in some other journals. In all, the 30 papers involved more than 500 authors. The project is called ENCODE, for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements.
The $123 million effort involved more than 1,600 experiments during five years of work. If presented graphically, the data generated would cover a poster 30 kilometers wide and 16 meters high, Birney has estimated. …