Genomes are complicated. Even the concept of a “gene” isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. Genes are the units of heredity, the bits of DNA and RNA that do something inside a cell. But DNA doesn’t do much of anything by itself; genes need proteins to copy themselves and to turn the small percentage of DNA that codes for a protein into enzymes. Functional parts of DNA can code for proteins or tell the cellular machinery where to start copying the chromosomes, where to start and stop the transcription of DNA into RNA and the translation of RNA into protein. In the genomes of even the simplest cells, these different components are jumbled together, overlapping with each other backwards and forwards in a dense and highly evolved sequence. While we can read DNA sequences at exponentially increasing speed and decreasing cost, understanding in detail how all these sequences are tuned to control when and where and in what conditions specific proteins are expressed is still often plodding along one PhD thesis at a time.
A paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by Karsten Temme, Dehua Zhao, and Chris Voigt uses our increasing ability to synthesize DNA to tackle the problem from a very different angle.
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