Hailed as the biggest breakthrough in genomics in a decade, the project explained how swathes of DNA once thought to have no purpose, actually form a complex “control panel” for our genes.
The study is expected to lead to new medical treatments by pinpointing key areas of the genome which cause diseases such as cancer.
Certain “switches” have already been linked to 100 diseases including Crohn’s disease, childhood diabetes and schizophrenia. Only one to two per cent of our genome contains genes, the parts of our DNA bearing instructions for the creation of proteins from which cells are made.
The remainder of the genome, especially areas located far away from genes, was initially thought to have no purpose and was dismissively labelled “junk DNA”.
In the new project, named Encode, scientists found that 80 per cent of the “junk” region helps dictate how and where proteins are produced.
In particular, they found four million areas which act like dimmer switches for individual genes, dictating how active or inactive each one is.