The Mysteries of the Genome

Scientists studying the human genome, with the help of massively parallel arrays of supercomputers, are uncovering a world of information that is far more complex than anyone dreamed—and far more mysterious: Now - The Rest of the Genome.

Over the summer, Sonja Prohaska decided to try an experiment. She would spend a day without ever saying the word “gene.” Dr. Prohaska is a bioinformatician at the University of Leipzig in Germany. In other words, she spends most of her time gathering, organizing and analyzing information about genes. “It was like having someone tie your hand behind your back,” she said.

But Dr. Prohaska decided this awkward experiment was worth the trouble, because new large-scale studies of DNA are causing her and many of her colleagues to rethink the very nature of genes. They no longer conceive of a typical gene as a single chunk of DNA encoding a single protein. “It cannot work that way,” Dr. Prohaska said. There are simply too many exceptions to the conventional rules for genes.

It turns out, for example, that several different proteins may be produced from a single stretch of DNA. Most of the molecules produced from DNA may not even be proteins, but another chemical known as RNA. The familiar double helix of DNA no longer has a monopoly on heredity. Other molecules clinging to DNA can produce striking differences between two organisms with the same genes. And those molecules can be inherited along with DNA.

The gene, in other words, is in an identity crisis.

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