Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tuning gene expression up and down in individual cells

Control of biological mechanisms starts with modifying the action of genes. Genetics provides the blueprint for the production of all the cell's molecules and therefore determines cellular behaviour to a great extent. Scientists have found ways to shut genes off, or to make them more active. By doing that, we are able to treat diseases, or modify stem cells to behave the way we want them to. But sometimes, this is not enough; it would be handy if we had a mechanism that allowed us to precisely tune how much of an individual gene needs to be expressed in a particular cell. Such a refined piece of equipment has now been made available for human cells.

Basically, the scientists created a circuit that affects the expression of a targeted gene, and it can both be repressed or enhanced. And because they were so kind as to provide fellow researchers with a step by step guide to make such circuits, it is a technique that everybody can use. It comes in handy because conventional techniques to alter gene expression are rather blunt: genes are normally knocked down completely, or enhanced with no way of tuning it down again.

Cancer research
One of the practical purposes of this novel circuit-based technique is its use for studying the behaviour of cancer cells. Cancer is sometimes called a disease of the genes, because it starts with DNA damage and faulty gene expression. Cancer cells behave in a malicious way, but being able to fine tune the expression of certain genes may help correct that behaviour.

Life starts with the collaboration of genetic material that forms us into what we are now. Being able to fine tune the expression of those genes gives us unprecedented power over biology, although we obviously still need to find actual practical use for it. Nevertheless, the new circuit-based technology is interesting for many scientists working with genes, hopefully bringing us new, possible cures for cancer.

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