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Scientists discover a genetic code for organizing DNA within the nucleus

DNA the long, thin molecule that carries our hereditary material is compressed around protein scaffolding in the cell nucleus into tiny spheres called nucleosomes. The bead-like nucleosomes are strung along the entire chromosome, which is itself folded and packaged to fit into the nucleus. What determines how, when and where a nucleosome will be positioned along the DNA sequence? Dr. Eran Segal and research student Yair Field of the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science have succeeded, together with colleagues from Northwestern University in Chicago, in cracking the genetic code that sets the rules for where on the DNA strand the nucleosomes will be situated. Their findings appeared today in Nature.

The precise location of the nucleosomes along the DNA is known to play an important role in the cell's day to day function, since access to DNA wrapped in a nucleosome is blocked for many proteins, including those responsible for some of life's most basic processes. Among these barred proteins are factors that initiate DNA replication, transcription (the transfer of genetic information from DNA to RNA) and DNA repair. Thus, the positioning of nucleosomes defines the segments in which these processes can and can't take place. These limitations are considerable: Most of the DNA is packaged into nucleosomes. A single nucleosome contains about 150 genetic bases (the "letters" that make up a genetic sequence), while the free area between neighboring nucleosomes is only about 20 bases long. It is in these nucleosome-free regions that processes such as transcription can be initiated.

For many years, scientists have been unable to agree whether the placement of nucleosomes in live cells is controlled by the genetic sequence itself. Segal and his colleagues managed to prove that the DNA sequence indeed encodes "zoning" information on where to place nucleosomes. They also characterized this code and then
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Contact: Jennifer Manning
jennifer@acwis.org
212-895-7952
American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science
19-Jul-2006


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