The Human Genome Project successfully decoded our genetic heritage. Since then science has discovered that most of this material lies unused within our cells. Epigenetics – how genes switch on and off – is paving the way for advances in regenerative medicine and stem cell research. Professor Wendy Bickmore here explains how two metres of the same genetic material gets packed into each body cell, inside a space narrower than a hundredth of a millimeter. It has to be highly folded. Many genes can’t then be reached by the machinery that ‘reads’ them and translates them into active proteins. So, folding affects which genes get switched on or off. When the wrong genes switch on or off cancer can result. Wendy’s research team looked at human chromosome 16. DNA in this region is folded differently in breast cancer cells than normal cells. Now they are trying to find out why.
Written by Brona McVittie
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