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Gene switchboard reveals its secrets

Genetic disorders may be treated more easily thanks to research at the University of Geneva

(Keystone Archive)

Scientists at the University of Geneva have made an important discovery about the transfer of information in genes. The findings could advance the treatment of human genetic disorders.

The researchers, who are collaborating with the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, are investigating the behaviour of regulatory elements which control the behaviour of genes.

These elements act as insulators or walls, blocking the transfer of information from one side of the wall to the other. They are usually believed to insulate a gene against the effects of adjacent genes or adjacent sequences so they can act independently.

Professor Vincenzo Pirrotta, says his team has discovered "that if we take two copies of one of these insulators they seem to short-circuit one another, cancel each other out and this has important implications.

"You might think of it as a kind of switchboard. It's a way to establish communication between different genes or different parts of the genome, and to prevent other kinds of communication."

The latest discovery has posed a number of crucial questions. "We're very interested in the nature of this network," says Pirrotta. "How it's established, what it connects to, the molecules that constitute the structural basis of this network and most importantly, the consequences that it has for the behaviour of genes, the regulation of genes and the behaviour of chromosomes during cell division."

The team's work is expected to have practical consequences for gene therapy and improve understanding of how certain important genes function and misfunction to create human genetic disorders.

"The last two or three years have seen enormous progress in the understanding of the structural basis of genes," says Pirrotta. "What we need to understand now is how they act together and what they actually do."

by Vincent Landon


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