DNA research: learning the language of genes

Griffith University's Dr Christine Wells is one of just a handful of women scientists in the global FANTOM consortium which has announced a major breakthrough in unraveling the mammalian genome.

The consortium comprises researchers from Japan , Singapore , Sweden , South Africa , Italy , Germany , Greece , Switzerland , the UK , the United States and Australia . Together with Griffith 's Dr Wells and a group of University of Queensland's Scientists including Professor David Hume, Professor John Mattick and Dr Sean Grimmond, FANTOM has published its research in the prestigious journal Science.

Dr Wells said while genome projects identified, in effect, the alphabet of DNA, it has taken until now for scientists to understand how to arrange the letters into words. By measuring the RNA messages that cells produce, the FANTOM project has captured the words used by those cells.

“The information that we have gathered is an annotation exercise of huge importance – we are learning the genetic language used by cells, discovering how to read the words, construct and punctuate the sentences that create a story unique to every cell, tissue and individual,” Dr Wells explained.

“What we have additionally uncovered is that the biology story is always changing with new nuances, accents and dialects. The order of the letters in the words remains essentially the same in individuals, and even between species, but the way that the words are used can vary dramatically.

“The information in our genome has the potential to tell us about our history as a species, how we might be related to other life on this planet past and present. As well, we will be able to unearth fundamental information about what makes us human, why we look the way we do, what keeps us growing, healthy and developing, as well as give us new insights into illnesses as varied as cancer or arthritis.”

Dr Wells' research has focused on understanding the biology of the immune system's macrophage – or scavenger white blood cells.

“It has been these macrophage cells whose story has been best characterised by the FANTOM project and, if we look at the genome as a book, it is these cells which have given us many of the new words and new sentences,” she said.

“My research at Griffith University will continue to explore the genetic language of macrophages and other cells – it is a very exciting time to be involved in research in Brisbane .

“Science is integral to helping us understand who we are and I hope that my involvement in this area of research at Griffith will inspire more women and young people to study the biological sciences.”

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