Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Genotyping & Gene Expression
Scientific Community
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Researchers Identify Biochemical Functions for Most of the Human Genome

Published: Friday, September 07, 2012
Last Updated: Friday, September 07, 2012
Bookmark and Share
New map finds genetic regulatory elements account for 80 percent of our DNA.

Only about 1 percent of the human genome contains gene regions that code for proteins, raising the question of what the rest of the DNA is doing. Scientists have now begun to discover the answer: About 80 percent of the genome is biochemically active, and likely involved in regulating the expression of nearby genes, according to a study from a large international team of researchers.

The consortium, known as ENCODE (which stands for “Encyclopedia of DNA Elements”), includes hundreds of scientists from several dozen labs around the world. Using genetic sequencing data from 140 types of cells, the researchers were able to identify thousands of DNA regions that help fine-tune genes’ activity and influence which genes are expressed in different kinds of cells.

Just as the sequencing of the human genome helped scientists learn how mutations in protein-coding genes can lead to disease, the new map of noncoding regions should provide some answers on how mutations in the regulatory elements lead to diseases such as lupus and diabetes, says Manolis Kellis, an associate professor of computer science at MIT, an associate member of the Broad Institute and an author of a paper describing the findings in the Sept. 5 online edition of Nature.

“Humans are 99.9 percent identical to each other, and you only have one difference in every 300 to 1,000 nucleotides,” Kellis says. “What ENCODE allows you to do is provide an annotation of what each nucleotide of the genome does, so that when it’s mutated, we can make some predictions about the consequences of the mutation.”

Kellis, who leads MIT’s Computational Biology Group, is one of the principal investigators involved in the Nature paper. The ENCODE collaboration is publishing about two dozen additional papers this week detailing the new results.

Mapping noncoding DNA

ENCODE was established in 2003 to extend our understanding of the human genome beyond protein-coding genes. One way to do that is by studying the chemical modifications of individual stretches of DNA, which control when genetic regions will be active. These modifications vary by cell type and can modify either DNA directly or the histone proteins that DNA wraps around.

To map these modifications, known collectively as the epigenome, the research groups had to collect many different kinds of data from different cell types. Some labs measured DNA or histone modifications, while others gauged the accessibility of different stretches of DNA by cutting it into fragments with enzymes.

Kellis and his group were among the computational scientists leading the effort to analyze and integrate the huge amount of data generated by different labs. “Given that we were getting more than 1,000 data sets, we had to figure out ways to automatically calibrate experiments,” says Anshul Kundaje, a research scientist in MIT’s Computational Biology Group. “We developed an almost purely automated system that did all of this.”

The ENCODE researchers found that 80 percent of the genome experiences some kind of biochemical event, such as binding to proteins that regulate how often a neighboring gene is utilized. They also discovered that the same regulatory region can play different roles, depending on what type of cell it’s acting in.

The findings should have a major impact on scientists’ understanding of human biology and how genomic variations can cause disease, says Ben Raphael, an associate professor of computer science at Brown University.

“The most exciting part is now we’re getting a whole genome annotation of functional elements,” says Raphael, who was not part of the research team. “Every time you want to understand what a particular piece of the genome is doing, you can use the data from this project.”

Human variation

The researchers also studied the conservation of nucleotides — the A, T, C and G “letters” of DNA — in the newly identified regulatory regions. Nucleotides are conserved if they remain the same over long evolutionary periods, which can be measured by analyzing the variability between species, or among individuals within a species.

A recent paper by Kellis and colleagues showed that 5 percent of noncoding DNA is conserved across mammals. In one of the ENCODE companion papers appearing online Sept. 5 in Science, Kellis and MIT postdoc Lucas Ward show that an additional 4 percent is conserved within the human lineage, suggesting that those elements control recently evolved traits, some of which are unique to humans.

When the researchers looked at the functions of genes near newly evolved regulatory regions, they found many genes that encode regulators that activate other genes. “Genes involved in the nerve growth pathway and color vision, both of which have been hypothesized to be recent innovations in the primate lineage, are enriched in human-constrained elements in non-conserved regions,” Ward says.

The researchers found that the most highly conserved nucleotides were also the ones most likely to be associated with disease when mutated. They also showed that variants associated with autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are located in regions active only in immune cells, while variants linked to metabolic diseases are in regions active only in liver cells.

In their next phase, the ENCODE researchers hope to determine just how those variations lead to human disease.

“What we’ve done over this series of papers is effectively paint a set of reference annotations of common human genome function,” Kellis says. “Our next steps will be to personalize these maps — to basically ask how they vary naturally between individuals, by profiling different cell types from different people, and how their variation relates to human disease and complex human traits.”

In one follow-up project, Kellis and colleagues are comparing activity levels of regulatory elements in different cell types from the same person, across many individuals. Another project is looking at DNA modification patterns across the entire genome of many individuals, in hopes of identifying how variation of specific elements relates to disease.

The research was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,800+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 4,000+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Drug-Resistance Mechanism in Tumor Cells Unravelled
Targeting the RNA-binding protein that promotes resistance could lead to better cancer therapies.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Learning About Human Health Using Sewage
PhD student Mariana Matus studies human waste to understand individual and community health.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Real-Time Data for Cancer Therapy
Biochemical sensor implanted at initial biopsy could allow doctors to better monitor and adjust cancer treatments.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Bacterial Computing
The “friendly” bacteria inside our digestive systems are being given an upgrade, which may one day allow them to be programmed to detect and ultimately treat diseases such as colon cancer and immune disorders.
Monday, July 13, 2015
Researchers Develop Genetic Tools to Engineer Common Gut Bacterium
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed genetic parts that can be combined to program the commensal gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron.
Friday, July 10, 2015
How To Identify Drugs That Work Best For Each Patient
Implantable device could allow doctors to test cancer drugs in patients before prescribing chemotherapy.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Brain Tumor Weakness Identified
Discovery could offer a new target for treatment of glioblastoma.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
Epigenomics of Alzheimer’s Disease Progression
Study of epigenomic modifications reveals immune basis of Alzheimer's disease.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Proteins Drive Cancer Cells To Change States
When RNA-binding proteins are turned on, cancer cells get locked in a proliferative state.
Monday, December 15, 2014
Genetic Material Hitchhiking in Our Cells May Shape Physical Traits
Explaining the connection between genotype and phenotype must also consider genetic material that doesn’t come from an organism’s chromosomes at all.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
New Approach to Global Health Challenges
MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science brings many tools to the quest for new disease treatments and diagnostic devices.
Friday, September 27, 2013
How Old Memories Fade Away
Discovery of a gene essential for memory extinction could lead to new PTSD treatments.
Friday, September 20, 2013
Reading DNA, Backward and Forward
MIT biologists reveal how cells control the direction in which the genome is read.
Monday, June 24, 2013
Two MIT Professors Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators
Peter Reddien and Aviv Regev are among 27 top biomedical scientists selected nationwide.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Device Finds Stray Cancer Cells in Patients’ Blood
A microfluidic device that captures circulating tumor cells could give doctors a noninvasive way to diagnose and track cancers.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Scientific News
NIH Supports New Studies to Find Alzheimer’s Biomarkers in Down Syndrome
Initiative will track dementia onset, progress in Down syndrome volunteers.
New Gene Map Reveals Cancer’s Achilles’ Heel
Team of researchers switches off almost 18,000 genes
Genetic Basis of Fatal Flu Side Effect Discovered
A group of people with fatal H1N1 flu died after their viral infections triggered a deadly hyperinflammatory disorder in susceptible individuals with gene mutations linked to the overactive immune response, according to a recent study.
New Class of RNA Tumor Suppressors Identified
Two short, “housekeeping” RNA molecules block cancer growth by binding to an important cancer-associated protein called KRAS. More than a quarter of all human cancers are missing these RNAs.
Mathematical Model Forecasts the Path of Breast Cancer
Chances of survival depend on which organs breast cancer tumors colonize first.
Ancient Viral Molecules Essential for Human Development
Genetic material from ancient viral infections is critical to human development, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Measuring microRNAs in Blood to Speed Cancer Detection
A simple, ultrasensitive microRNA sensor holds promise for the design of new diagnostic strategies and, potentially, for the prognosis and treatment of pancreatic and other cancers.
Personalized Drug Screening for Multiple Myeloma Patients
A personalized method for testing the effectiveness of drugs that treat multiple myeloma may predict quickly and more accurately the best treatments for individual patients with the bone marrow cancer.
Metabolic Profiles Distinguish Early Stage Ovarian Cancer with Unprecedented Accuracy
Studying blood serum compounds of different molecular weights has led scientists to a set of biomarkers that may enable development of a highly accurate screening test for early-stage ovarian cancer.
New Way to Force Stem Cells to Become Bone Cells
Potential therapies based on this discovery could help people heal bone injuries or set hardware, such as replacement knees and hips.
Skyscraper Banner

SELECTBIO Market Reports
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,800+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
4,000+ scientific videos