Study: the “junk” in DNA isn’t really junk

BEIJING, June 14 (Xinhuanet) — An in-depth examination by 35 teams of researchers from 80 different organizations in 11 countries who shared notes on 1 percent of the human genome has revealed there is no such thing as “junk DNA” and that some of what was considered “useless-looking” stretches of DNA may rewrite the book on evolution and causes of some diseases.    Their findings, the start of the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements or ENCODE Project, were published in the journals Nature and Genome Research.

    “This is a landmark in our understanding of human biology,” said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which funded much of the work.

    Some scientists were surprised that human beings had only about 30,000 genes after the human genome was published in 2003. Rice, for instance, has 50,000. The new study confirms what many genetics experts had suspected — the genes are important, but so is the other DNA, the biological code for every living thing.

    What they discovered is that even DNA outside the genes transcribes information. Transcription is the process that turns DNA into something useful — such as a protein.

    Much of this action is going on outside the genes in the so-called regulatory regions that affect how and when a gene activates, Collins said. The researchers discovered 4,491 of these so-called transcription start sites, “almost tenfold more than the number of established genes,” they wrote in the Nature paper.

    Ewan Birney of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge said this helped explain how such a complex creature as a human arose from just four letters of code repeated over and over.

    “The junk is not junk. It is really active,” Birney told reporters. This could be useful in understanding and treating disease.

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