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Top Story

Imaging in living cells reveals how 'junk DNA' switches on a gene

These pieces of DNA are part of more than 90 percent of the genetic material that are not genes. Researchers now know that this "junk DNA" contains most of the information that can turn on or off genes. But how these segments of DNA, called enhancers, find and activate a target gene in the crowded environment of a cell's nucleus is not well understood. Analyses of how enhancers activate genes can aid in the understanding of normal development, when even small genetic missteps can result in birth defects. The timing of gene activation also is important in the development of many diseases including cancer. As their name suggests, enhancers switch on the expression of other genes. In the mammalian genome, there are an estimated 200,000 to 1 million enhancers, and many are located far away on the DNA strand from the gene they regulate, raising the question of how the regulatory segments can locate and connect with their target genes. Many previous studies on enhancers were conducted on non-living cells because of the difficulty in imaging genetic activity in living organisms. Such studies give only snapshots in time and can miss important details. In a new study, researchers used imaging techniques to track the position of an enhancer and its target gene, while simultaneously monitoring the gene's activity in living fly embryos.

Visit Website | Image credit: Hongtao Chen/Princeton University