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'Junk' DNA now looks like powerful regulator, Stanford researcher finds

STANFORD, Calif. -- Large swaths of garbled human DNA once dismissed as junk appear to contain some valuable sections, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California-Santa Cruz. The scientists propose that this redeemed DNA plays a role in controlling when genes turn on and off.

Gill Bejerano, PhD, assistant professor of developmental biology and of computer science at Stanford, found more than 10,000 nearly identical genetic snippets dotting the human chromosomes. Many of those snippets were located in gene-free chromosomal expanses once described by geneticists as "gene deserts." These sections are, in fact, so clogged with useful DNA bits - including the ones Bejerano and his colleagues describe - that they've been renamed "regulatory jungles."

"It's funny how quickly the field is now evolving," Bejerano said. His work picking out these snippets and describing why they might exist will be published in the April 23 advance online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It turns out that most of the segments described in the research paper cluster near genes that play a carefully orchestrated role during an animal's first few weeks after conception. Bejerano and his colleagues think that these sequences help in the intricate choreography of when and where those genes flip on as the animal lays out its body plan. In particular, the group found the sequences to be especially abundant near genes that help cells stick together. These genes play a crucial role early in an animal's life, helping cells migrate to the correct location or form into organs and tissues of the correct shape.

The 10,402 sequences studied by Bejerano, along with David Haussler, PhD, professor of biomolecular engineering at UC-Santa Cruz, are remnants of unusual DNA pieces called transposons that duplicate themselves and hop around the genome. "We used to think
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Contact: Krista Conger
650-725-5371
Stanford University Medical Center
23-Apr-2007


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