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. …