Science Gets Closer to Clarity on Genome

Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos lectures at NIH.
Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos lectures at NIH.

It appears that the actors that regulate the function of DNA in humans—and everything else that lives—behave much like human society: friends talk to friends, where you come from matters, family is important and memory is crucial—no one forgets their roots. It is a world where being turned on, and turned off, is the only thing that matters. Could DNA regulation be a metaphor for Saturday night on U St., or browsing on Tinder?

Such mysteries were plumbed at depth by Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos, professor of genome sciences and medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, who spoke recently at the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series. Undeterred by the seeming impossibility of the task before him, he offered both the history of, and predictions about, the field in medicine that currently holds mosthope—and most technological horsepower: the genome.

When the Human Genome Project announced success in the early 2000s, the real work had only just begun. Sure, we’ve got the letters, but what do they mean? How does the parts manual stand up and breathe?

Stamatoyannopoulos walked the audience through a timeline starting in the mid-1970s, when the link between chromatin structure and gene activation was established. That led to the development of DNA and RNA detection techniques, sometimes

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Biological Clock Can Help Researchers Understand Aging Process

Dr. Steve Horvath
Dr. Steve Horvath

Dr. Steve Horvath believes he’s built a biological clock that’s even more accurate than the candles on a birthday cake.

The clock is an algorithm that estimates a tissue sample’s biological age by measuring DNA methylation patterns, he explained at a recent Wednesday Afternoon Lecture. DNA methylation is a natural chemical process in which compounds known as methyl groups are attached to DNA.

“The clock is a very accurate measure of tissue age,” said Horvath, professor of human genetics and biostatistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s associated with many age-related conditions, it’s a prognostic of mortality and it allows you to contrast the ages of different tissues.”

He can, for example, use the algorithm to compare heart and lung tissue samples from a middle-aged man. “I could say his heart is 50 years old and his lungs are 30 years old,” he said. Doctors might eventually be able to use this information to develop an individualized treatment plan for the patient.

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