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PSW#2326: What is a Gene?: How ENCODE is redefining genetic information

The approximately three billion base pairs comprising the human genome represent a storage device encoding information for hundreds of thousands of cellular processes that can go on within a cell. This information and its organization is partially revealed in RNA transcripts that are potentially derived from 12 billion nucleotides (taking into account that there are two copies of each chromosome and two strands of DNA in each chromosome). The possibility that much of these genomic sequences are non-functional was raised decades ago. The C-value paradox refers to the observation that genome size does not correlate with perceived organismal complexity and that even closely related species can have vastly different genome sizes. The term "junk DNA" was coined to refer to that part of a genome not encoding instructions to synthesize proteins. Since less than 2% of the human genome appears to encode proteins, the term applies to the vast majority of human DNA.

The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project (ENCODE) was launched to catalog all of the functional elements of the human genome and where they are located. Recently the project has produced surprising results that challenge the concept of "junk DNA." These showed that more than 75% of the human genome is involved in some sort of biochemical process including making RNA and binding regulatory proteins that control and process this transcriptional activity. These findings raise important questions, including: how much DNA in the genome really is "non-functional"; what do we mean by biological functionality of DNA; and - at the very core of genetics - what is a gene?

This lecture will discuss the recent ENCODE findings and their implications for our understanding of genes, genetic structure, and the expression and transmission of genetic information.

Speaker: Thomas Gingeras

Professor and Head of Functional Genomics, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Principal Investigator, The NIH ENCODE project.

Meeting abstract and speaker bio

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  • Joel W.

    Outstanding lecture on a theory which challenges our current thought about what a Gene is. Also the challenge of looking at a gene as construct that references our connection with each other and all other animal forms on the planet.
    Also another interesting thing the speaker said after the main talk was over, was that RNA is exchanged between cells. That proteins went between cells is one thing-but that RNA also does, that was the stuff of science fiction(speakers words ), but it is now known to occur.
    His current interest in this regard is to determine the universe of RNA encapsulated an used cell to cell as a channel between cells.

    January 11, 2014

    • Joel W.

      Eric, the speaker said this to me and a couple of persons after the talk up front. The question that I asked him was, what is the area of research that you are pursuing now, and that is when he mentioned finding out what was gong on in encapsulated RNA which forms a channel between cells. I said, oh, analogous perhaps to ip packets? He said, good analogy, although the ip packets are well defined-we need to get to the universe of RNA that is encapsulated and transmitted between cells.
      I said, that could be very interesting especially in terms of research re: cancer cells-perhaps this is a mechanism in metastasis? He smiled and said, it will be interesting to see what we find. I jumped a couple of steps further, and said, perhaps a way to cure, he thought that was to early and too little to go that far-which I suspected. But it is rather interesting given that we know that proteins go between cells, but now we know that RNA goes between cells as a communication channel it seems.

      January 12, 2014

    • Eric H.

      Your question was excellent and thanks to your explanation, I get a glimmer of where Dr. Gingeras leading edge research may be heading.

      January 12, 2014

  • Eric H.

    Ignorance may have been bliss. The mystery of life has been pleasingly increased.

    January 11, 2014

  • lynn f.

    excellent, fast paced and clear presentation of the complexity of the genome

    1 · January 10, 2014

    • SK


      January 11, 2014

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