Sunday, July 01, 2007

Your genes aren't simply on-off switches--surprised?

The New York Times today discussed the recently-published findings of the National Human Genome Research Project about the structure and function of genes. Rather than being independent agents--this gene causes heart disease, this gene causes a predisposition to Alzheimer's, etc.--genes in fact are part of a highly-interconnected, complex network that guides how we grow and age.

The press release announcing the study findings says, in part,

The ENCODE consortium's major findings include the discovery that the majority of DNA in the human genome is transcribed into functional molecules, called RNA, and that these transcripts extensively overlap one another. This broad pattern of transcription challenges the long-standing view that the human genome consists of a relatively small set of discrete genes, along with a vast amount of so-called junk DNA that is not biologically active.

The new data indicate the genome contains very little unused sequences and, in fact, is a complex, interwoven network. In this network, genes are just one of many types of DNA sequences that have a functional impact. "Our perspective of transcription and genes may have to evolve," the researchers state in their Nature paper (
link - $$), noting the network model of the genome "poses some interesting mechanistic questions" that have yet to be answered.

I think any student of human nature would agree that there are lots of "interesting mechanistic questions" about how our bodies deploy their genetic inheritances.

According to the Times, this has serious implications for the biotech industry, specifically that its assumption that manipulating one part of the genome can have a highly-focused result with limited side effects. If the genome is a "complex, interwoven network," then unpredictable side effects are more than likely, they're nearly guaranteed.

So, as we all know in our guts, we need to be careful when messing around with Mother Nature. And maybe biotech drugs need just as much testing for side effects as those old-style ones.