American researchers perform the very first 'surgery' on the human genome

The origami-like rearrangement of genes could one day help those with genetic disorders

Doug Bolton
Tuesday 20 October 2015 14:50
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A digital representation of the human genome.. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA.
A digital representation of the human genome.. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA.

American researchers have performed the very first 'surgery' on the human genome, in a development that could one day provide a cure for those suffering from genetic diseases.

It wasn't surgery in the conventional sense - the genome is present in every cell in the body, so large scalpels and saws are no use. But the way the gene was manipulated bears a resemblance to traditional surgical techniques.

Scientists have manipulated genes before, but only in one dimension. Now, scientists have discovered a way to change how the genes are arranged in cells, manipulating them in three dimensions, allowing them to alter DNA patterns on specific places on a chromosone.

The results of the study were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, and they explain that the genome is folded in different ways, in order for it to fit inside the cell.

There is a DNA sequence that signals when a long string of DNA should fold and turn back on itself - Erez Lierberman Aiden, director of the Centre for Genome Architecture at Baylor College of Medicine, describes it as similar to origami.

The final folded shape of the genome dictates what function it performs - bone, blood and brain cells all perform different functions, due to how the genome is arranged.

However, by changing the patterns of these folds, scientists can change which genes are active in cells - not only allowing them to switch genes on and off, as was previously possible, but to change what the genome is doing.

Speaking to Time, Aiden said: "Think of an origami-like situtation. You start with a blank sheet of paper, but whether you fold that into a hat, plane or crane is a matter of folds. And its function, as a hat, plane or crane, also depends on those folds."

There's still a long way to go before this technique has medical applications, but it could become another tool in the pocket of scientists and medical professionals looking to help those with genetic disorders.

As Aiden said, there is a number of ways that a genetic problem can develop, some of which may be due to the way the genome is folded.

By manipulating the shape and pattern of these genes, these problems could be solved.

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