The Inner Life of Cells

By Sepkowitz, Kent | Newsweek, September 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Inner Life of Cells


Sepkowitz, Kent, Newsweek


Byline: Kent Sepkowitz

DNA's middle managers could be the key to future cures.

Scientists made a splash last week when they presented a radical new view of DNA, solving a puzzle that has long gnawed at investigators and shedding light on diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. Ever since decoding the human genome, scientists have been perplexed by the long strands of our DNA that appear to do nothing. They called the idle double helixes "junk DNA," thinking they were nothing but leftovers from ill-fitting assembly parts, useless bits of this and that, last season's models.

The days of junk status are now officially over. Working for almost 10 years on a collaborative project called Encode (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements), 440 scientists from 32 labs across the globe announced that they have finally figured out just what the silent majority of our DNA does: it's middle management.

It seems these large branches of the DNA family tree--formerly called "junk" but now fitted with the tony moniker "dark matter"--run the factory but don't actually make anything. They're the deciders, the guys with administrative approval to greenlight a project or stop it cold--in this case to determine which genes step forward to produce a protein and which ones remain stalled, waiting for that second chance. And with a million supervisors for every 23,000 genes, a ratio of about 50 to 1, it appears middle management is well staffed. …

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