New Life for "Junk" DNA

By Ilene Raymond Rush
February 1, 2007

Genetic material called 'junk' DNA because it did not seem to contain instructions for protein coding genes and appeared to have little or no function may actually play an important role in evolution and an array of dreaded diseases.

Although this non-coding DNA comprises 98.7 percent of human DNA -- compared with the 1.3 percent of genes that make up the human genome -- researchers so far have a limited, though tantalizing, understanding of its functions.

To accelerate interdisciplinary research and funding in this area, a new International PostGenetics Society (IPGS, http://www.postgenetics.org) has been announced. Headed by Dr. Andras Pellionisz, a longtime advocate for genome-wide understanding, and signed by over 20 international scientists, the group has outlined plans to launch "PostGenetics Study Programs" and to promulgate the emergence of "PostGenetics Centers" along with a scientific journal and Congress.

In addition, the announcement builds the case for abandoning the 'junk' DNA label and replacing it with "Post-Genetics" to reflect an interest in exploring the complete genetic package.

Pellionisz is a long time advocate for the investigation and critical importance of non-coding DNA. Using his mathematical approach called "FractoGene", Pellionisz was among the first researchers to interpret patterns in this DNA, recently scaled to capabilities by the IBM Watson Center. These observations lead him to believe that this 'junk' DNA had functional importance despite its non-coding properties in the classical sense.

"With hundreds of millions dying of diseases originating from non-coding DNA, no effort should be spared to promote the long overdue agenda of PostGenetics, leading towards the emergence of PostGenetic Centers," says Pellionisz in an e-mail exchange. Among the diseases that may have tentative links to this DNA are Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, psoriasis, asthma, muscular dystrophy, HIV-AIDS and a variety of cancers.

So far, some of the most intriguing explanations of the role of this genetic material have arisen in the area of evolutionary biology. In 2005, for example, Dr. Peter Andolfatto, an assistant professor of biology at University of California, San Diego, showed that non-coding regions play an important role in maintaining an organism's genetic integrity.

Early this year, a team of scientists has shown that a particular type of non-coding RNA, a chemical found in cell nuclei, plays a key role in regulating a gene implicated in control of tumor growth. The research done at the University of Oxford, U.K., and published in the journal Nature, shows that a form of RNA switches off a gene involved in cell division, which may have implications for preventing the growth of tumor cells.

"There's been a quiet revolution taking place in biology during the past few years over the role of RNA," says Dr. Alexandre Akoulitchev, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. "Scientists have begun to see 'junk' DNA as having a very important function. The variety of RNA types produced from this 'junk' is staggering and the functional implications are huge."

The importance of an interdisciplinary approach to PostGenetics is underlined by its importance to not only biotechnology, but in both information technology and nanotechnology, says Pellionisz. He points to the work of Craig Venter, co-founder of Synthetic Genomics, a firm dedicated to using modified microorganisms to produce ethanol and hydrogen and alternative fuels.

"Venter has set out to modify the genome of the bacterium with the smallest genome of all - a self-supporting organism to produce H2 for a global hydrogen-based economy," notes Pellionisz. "Yet, 8% of the DNA of even this organism is "non-coding", thus Ventner's goal may not be attainable without going "beyond genes".

"At the dawn of the postmodern era of Genetics, we simply don't know enough about this part of genetic material," says Antonio Giordano, M.D., PhD., director of the Sbarro Institute of Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia and one of the founding members of IPGS. "With funding opening up for PostGenetics we can begin to uncover the answers to far too long overlooked questions."