A Closer Look At Gene Regulation

Scientists get a better glimpse at how genes are regulated.

There was a time when most of the human genome was considered to be "junk DNA," just an evolutionary relic.

Nowadays, scientists say that more than half of the genome consists of regulatory elements. They control which genes get produced at any given time in the cell. In other words, the "junk" is actually doing something critical to life.

The regulatory elements involve enhancers, short DNA sequences that help activate the gene copying process (called transcription), by binding to a gene's promoter region, where copying begins.

Science Daily reports that a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new method (called Region Capture Micro-C or "RCMC") to map the interactions between enhancers and promoters, at x100 greater resolution than before.

What they've found with the method so far is intriguing, and highlights the mind-boggling complexity of what happens in gene production. Here's a few bullet points from their research so far:

  • In regions full of genes and enhancers, some genes interacted with as many as 50 other DNA segments, and each interacting site contacted an average of 25 others (although the research couldn't reveal whether this happened simultaneously or not).
  • DNA appears to coil itself into "microcompartments" that facilitate these interactions, although the researchers don't yet know what causes this.

In Part 2 of my book, I discuss the origin of life (abiogenesis) and various aspects of evolution. According to classical evolutionary theorists, life as we know it is simply the result of the shuffling of nucleotides in the genome (i.e. mutations), combined with natural selection, played out over billions of years.

It's interesting to think about how shuffling nucleotides in the genome could create all these 3D interactions. While genes can change through mutations, how do the regulatory networks change? Are they affected by mutations in the same way as genes?

Scientists are only just beginning to understand regulatory elements (remember, just a few decades ago they were "junk DNA"), and it will be interesting to see whether their evolutionary ideas change with it. Either way, the so-called "illusion of design" is looking more design-like with each new layer of complexity discovered.