Is the DNA between genes really junk?

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Switch It Up

A lot more of that double helix is getting respect these days.
A lot more of that double helix is getting respect these days.
Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

So as we said, we have loads and loads of DNA, only some of which is protein-coding genes. For a long time, scientists thought that anything noncoding was -- it's almost rude to say it -- "junk," and labeled as such.

But now so-called junk DNA is having its day, courtesy of the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, or ENCODE, project. Thanks to ENCODE, a group of more than 400 geneticists from around the world have been scrutinizing this DNA. Although the DNA doesn't include instructions for proteins, it wasn't just hanging around. In fact, it seems this noncoding DNA (a much kinder label) actually contained gene switches that control our genes.

To take our switch analogy further, let's think about a radio. Without some sort of switch mechanism, it wouldn't serve much good. But with an on/off mechanism -- not to mention a tuner and a volume dial -- we can make that radio work. Same with genes. A gene has to be told what to do; on its own it's just blinking 12:00, like that radio in your house. But with the switches that exist in our noncoding DNA, the genes can become activated. The gene switches determine what genes are used (and how) in a cell. Much as our radio tuner tells us if we're going to listen to pop music or NPR, our gene switches tell our genes what they're to become -- and, like turning the volume up or down, the switches determine how much protein is made and when. So our former junk DNA actually contains crucial instructions for how our genes operate within each cell.

Even more interesting is the implication that genetic switches are playing a large role in disease. Some diseases -- certain cancers, for instance -- are thought to come from changes in DNA. But ENCODE showed a link between malfunctioning genes and variants in the switches -- not a variant in the gene itself. In other words, it might not be the radio that's defective; the volume might just be broken. Which, I think we can all agree, is pretty much the coolest thing we've learned today.