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Short Distance Calls: The Shape of the Genome Determines How Genes “Chat”

If there is one thing that recent advances in genomics has revealed, it is how chatty our genes are. They “talk” to each other, interacting across separate chromosomes and vast stretches of DNA. 

According to Ken-ichi Noma, Ph.D., the three-dimensional shape of the entire genome may explain much of this complex chatter. DNA spends most of its  time in a tangled clump of chromosomes, the shape of which positions groups of related genes near to each other and exposes them to the cell’s gene-controlling machinery. This structure, Noma says, is not merely the shape of the genome, but also a key to how it works.

“People are familiar with the X-shapes our chromosomes form during cell division, but what they may not realize is that DNA only spends a relatively short amount of time in that conformation,” Noma said. “I believe we are looking at a new way to visualize both the genome itself and the movements of all the various molecules that act on the genome.”

Noma recently published the first 3-D model of a yeast genome, which is written on three chromosomes, and his lab is busy deciphering the shape of the much more complex human genome, which is written on 46 chromosomes. The full shape of the human genome, he believes, will provide both scientists and physicians a whole new framework from which to better understand genetics and disease.