Scientists have gained an insight into previously uncharted regions of the human genome, discovering the function of more than 250 genes involved in cell growth and development. 

Ten years ago, the human genome, often referred to by scientists as the 'book of life', was mapped and sequenced. This genetic blueprint was the culmination of years of research, yet we still do not fully understand the function of almost half these genes. 

In an effort to unravel the role of more genes in the human genome, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK explored the functions and processes of genes involved in three cellular processes - cell shape, microtubule organisation (the arrangement of tube-like structures that help cells divide), and cell-cycle progression (the various events that take place in a cell, leading to cell division). All three of these processes are key to cell development and growth, and the team wanted to find out how various genes interact with them.

"We have no 'catalogue' of genes involved in cellular processes and their functions, yet these processes are fundamental to life," said Carazo Salas, cell biologist and lead author of the study, in a press release. "Understanding them better could eventually open up new avenues of research for medicines which target these processes, such as chemotherapy drugs."

The results, which are published in the journal Developmental Cell, report that these processes share some surprising links and their function relies on many of the same genes. 

The team inserted 262 genes into the fission yeast genome - a model organism that shares many genes with humans but is made up of just one cell, which means it has a rapid growth rate. Using high-resolution 3D confocal microscopy and computer analysis, they were able to analyse the images of the genes in the yeast to see how they affected the three cellular processes.

The findings revealed that two-thirds of the 262 genes had not previously been linked to any of the three cellular processes.

Our DNA is damaged every day, but luckily, our cells are usually able to repair the damage. This damage causes us to age as our telomeres - DNA on the end of chromosomes - slowly shorten with each cycle of repair. Extreme telomere shortening can be very dangerous and may lead to cancer. Microtubules grow and shorten randomly in our cells, and this can be a problem for cancer patients who require stable microtubules to ensure cell cycle death. A particularly interesting finding of the study revealed that the mechanism that repairs damaged DNA also controls microtubule stability.

"Both the technique and the data it produces are likely to be a very valuable resource to the scientific community in the future," said Salas. "It allows us to shine a light into the black box of the genome and learn exciting new information about the basic building blocks of life and the complex ways in which they interact."

Source: University of Cambridge