Regulating genes to treat illness, grow food, and understand the brain

Posted: October 31, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Genes are not enough to explain the difference between a skin cell and a stem cell, a leaf cell and a root cell, or the complexity of the human brain. Genes dont explain the subtle ways in which your parents environment before you were conceived might affect your offspring.

Another layer of complexitythe epigenomeis at work determining when and where genes are turned on and off.

Ryan Lister is unravelling this complexity. Hes created ways of mapping the millions of molecular markers of where genes have been switched on or off, has made the first maps of these markers in plants and humans, and revealed key differences between the markers in cells with different fates.

Hes created maps of the epigenome in plants, which could enable plant breeders to modify crops to increase yields without changing the underlying DNA.

Hes explained a challenge for stem cell medicineshowing how, when we persuade, for example, skin cells to turn into stem cells, these cells retain a memory of their past. Their epigenome is different to that of natural embryonic stem cells. He believes this molecular memory could be reversed.

He has also recently explored the most complex system we knowthe human braindiscovering that its epigenome is extensively reconfigured in childhood during critical stages when the neural circuits are forming and maturing. These epigenome patterns may even underpin learning and memory. All of this in just 15 years since the beginning of his PhD.

For his contribution to the understanding of gene regulation and its potential ability to change agriculture and the treatment of disease and mental health, Professor Ryan Lister of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia has been awarded the 2014 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

The human body is composed of hundreds of different types of cells. Yet all are formed from the same set of instructions, the human genome. How does this happen?

On top of the genetic code sits another code, the epigenome. It can direct which genes are switched on and which are switched off, Ryan Lister says. The genome contains a huge volume of information, a parts list to build an entire organism. But controlling when and where the different components are used is crucial. The epigenetic code regulates the release of the genomes potential. Cells end up with different forms and functions through using different parts of the genome.

Because such gene regulation is so fundamental, malfunctions in the epigenetic code can lead to disease and disability. For instance, cancer and neurological disorders can involve changes in gene regulation that are connected to changes in the epigenome. The epigenetic code also enables rapid cellular responses to environmental change that may be important, for instance, in adapting food crops to challenging conditions.

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Regulating genes to treat illness, grow food, and understand the brain

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