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Scientists achieve precise synthetic gene manipulation

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Assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University Charles Gersbach

Researchers have gained control of gene activity through the synthetic creation of a key component of the epigenome that controls gene expression.

The research was carried out by a group of scientists from the Duke University and published in the online journal Nature Biotechnology on Monday.

“The epigenome is everything associated with the genome other than the actual genetic sequence, and is just as important as our DNA in determining cell function in healthy and diseased conditions,” said Charles Gersbach, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. “…. The epigenome determines which genes each cell activates and to what degree.”

According to the group, the newly developed technology permits them to activate specific gene promoters and enhancers through the chemical manipulation of proteins which package DNA.

“Next to every gene is a DNA sequence called a promoter that controls its activity,” said Gersbach. “But there’s also many other pieces of the genome called enhancers that aren’t next to any genes at all, and yet they play a critical role in influencing gene activity too.”

The team activated the enhancers by chemically altering the histones, DNA packaging proteins, at the enhancers to turn them on.

“There are already drugs that will affect enhancers across the whole genome, but that’s like scorching the earth,” said Timothy Reddy, an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Duke. “I wanted to develop tools to go in and modify very specific epigenetic marks in very specific places to find out what individual enhancers are doing.”

The group says that the ability to manipulate the epigenome will help them explore the roles that particular promoters and enhancers have in cell fate or the risks for genetic disease. It also helps in gene therapy and stem cell differentiation.


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