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An i nternati onal team of sci enti sts has determi ned that a good chunk of our DNA may act as swi tches that turn genes
"on and "off. Credi t: Nati onal Human Genome Research nsti tute
The rest of your DNA
By Stephen Ornes / September 25, 2012
The tiniest, most complicated set of instructions just got a little easier to read,
thanks to a giant scientif ic project called ENCODE, which recruited more than 400
scientists f rom all over the world.
Those instructions reside in a long molecule called DNA. And one copy of this DNA
resides within almost every cell, telling it how to operate.
Without DNA, lif e would be impossible. Trees have DNA; so do animals,
mushrooms, bacteria, and people. Previous studies of human DNA determined the f unction of only a f raction
of the molecule. The global team has been trying to understand what, if anything, the rest of that DNA might
ENCODE turned up evidence that the majority of the DNA molecule contains segments that may turn other
portions "on or "of f . Some segments may also control how DNA gets f olded up.
Human DNA looks like a twisted ladder with about three billion rungs. Each copy of this ladder holds the
human genome. That is a f ull set of all the genes, or genetic material, within a person. Nine years ago,
scientists reported they'd f inished mapping the entire human genome. They f ound many genes about
21,000 that make proteins. Although these molecules do much of the work in a cell, only about 2 percent
of the genome is involved in making them. So scientists wondered what the remaining portions of DNA do.
About 80 percent of the genome has tasks to do, the new study suggests. n addition to the 21,000 protein-
making genes, about 30,000 dif f erent portions of DNA make various types of RNA. These molecules do
several dif f erent things. Some may assist in making proteins or perf orm other jobs, such as packaging DNA.
Some may also act as switches that turn genes on and of f . Understanding these switches is important,
since such changes can cause or prevent disease.
Based on ENCODE's f indings, scientists can now ask better questions ones that will yield better answers
than was possible right af ter human DNA was f irst mapped nine years ago, Eric Green told Science News.
Green is the director of the National Human Genome Research nstitute, which organized and paid f or
ENCODE (short f or Encyclopedia of DNA Elements). Scientists working on the project published their new
f indings in more than 30 dif f erent scientif ic papers this month.
The scientists involved in ENCODE want to understand how all of the processes written into DNA determine
what makes people similar and dif f erent. So now that they've mapped active layers within the entire genome,
the f un part starts: f iguring out precisely what they all do.
Power words
gene A sequence of DNA that determines a particular characteristic in an organism. Genes are passed f rom
parents to children, and genes contain the instructions f or building proteins.
DNA, or deoxyribonucIeic acid A long, spiral-shaped molecule inside nearly every cell of an organism that
carries genetic inf ormation. Chromosomes are made of DNA.
ceII The smallest structural and f unctional unit of an organism, typically too small to see with the naked eye.
genome The complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.
protein Compounds that are an essential part of all living organisms. Proteins do the work inside a cell.
They may be parts of body tissues such as muscle, hair and collagen. Proteins may also be enzymes and