'Silent' DNA speaks up for the first time

Until now, half of all genes in certain cells were thought to be inexpressible

By moderately raising the temperature of cells, biologists have broken through what was considered an impermeable barrier that kept half the genes in some cells "silent." The surprising results, in which these heated genes reached 500 times their normal rate of expression, could lead to better understanding of cellular processes involved in aging, fever and toxicity.

Biochemistry and molecular biology professor David Gross and graduate student Edward Sekinger conducted the research at Louisiana State University Health Science Center (LSUHSC) with support from the National Science Foundations (NSF) Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. The findings appear in the current issue of the journal Cell.

More than half the genes in a typical human cell never get expressed due to a shield-like coating of proteins called "chromatin." In many genes, chromatin does not prevent the expression of DNAs genetic codes. But in genes coated with extremely dense "heterochromatin," the DNA stays quarantined from triggers that would otherwise cause transcription, the process by which genes dictate characteristics such as hair and eye color.

"Until now, genes sheathed in heterochromatin were assumed incapable of being expressed due to an absence of trigger proteins," Gross said. "This research shows that these proteins do naturally penetrate the heterochromatin, but once inside cannot function. Our evidence indicates that heating the cells activates these proteins, causing a heat-responsive gene to be expressed at a very high rate."

Using yeast as a model because it has many genes in common with humans, Gross and Sekinger raised the cells' temperature from its normal 86 degrees to 102 degrees. The cells woke up with a vengeance, expressing the silent, heat-responsive gene at 500 times the normal frequency.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a c

Contact: Tom Garritano
National Science Foundation

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