The human body contains approximately 50 trillion cells whose length of DNA content compares to 528 million donuts wrapped around the earth 2,500 times.
Until recently, scientists thought 95 percent of that DNA was “junk” and had no function. BYU microbiology professor Steven Johnson and one of his undergraduate assistants, Elliot Winters, participated in a worldwide collaborative research project, the ENCODE Project , and concluded that 80 percent of a person’s DNA does perform an important function.
“It’s the culmination of this international consortium saying all this DNA that we thought didn’t have a function actually has a function or has something going on,” Johnson said. “We don’t know exactly what is going on, but it’s not just ‘junk’ that is sitting there with no purpose.”
The collaborative research project, the ENCODE Project, provides a database of information to those performing genetic research. The research was published in Genome Research, and Johnson and Winters are listed as co-authors.
The ENCODE Project group came to Johnson and asked him to help isolate the nucleosomes on DNA strands to identify their positioning. According to Johnson, a nucleosome is the fundamental unit of DNA packaging in a cell that the DNA strand wraps around.
“We told them exactly how we wanted the cells prepared, and they sent them to us frozen,” Johnson said. “I taught my undergraduate student, Elliot Winters, this technique that I’d developed. Over a course of about four months, we were able to get it to work just right and isolate just the DNA that we wanted to with the nucleosomes.”
Winters is not alone in doing mentored undergraduate research at BYU. According to the BYU website, the university gave $1.4 million to 71 faculty members specifically for projects involving undergraduates. Winters identifies his research experience as one of the most important parts of his BYU education.
“The reason I started doing it is because I wanted to strengthen my application for medical school,” Winters said. “Looking back on it, it was one of the most valuable parts of my education.”
Winters is only one of many students Johnson employs in his labs. Colton Kempton, a third-year master’s student from Safford, Ariz., is currently working with Johnson on more DNA research related to gene therapy.
“We believe that nucleosome position on the DNA represents a primary level of gene regulation,” Kempton said. “We are looking at trying to manipulate or prolong gene expression by re-positioning the nucleosomes.”
This new research could open the doors to future projects regarding gene therapy and possible cures for genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis. Currently, working genes can replace dysfunctional ones to help curb the symptoms of a disease, but the effects eventually stop because the DNA reorders itself around the nucleosomes, and the gene is turned off. Johnson said his research could lead to a way of prolonging the positive effects of the working genes.
“If we can figure out the things that are doing it, then that could be applied to help find cures for any kind of disease that amenable to gene therapy,” Johnson said. “With any single-gene mutation disease where loss of the gene product occurs, the protein could then be replaced with a normal copy of it that functions as the cell normally would without the mutation.”
For more information about undergraduate research at BYU, visit this website.