To increase our understanding of our genetic blueprints researchers have put together a database of genes we know almost nothing about.
While we know these genes exist and code for proteins, we have no idea what they're for.
"It has become clear that scientific research tends to focus on well-studied proteins, leading to a concern that poorly understood genes are unjustifiably neglected," researchers from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in the UK explain.
"To address this, we have developed a publicly available and customizable 'Unknome database'."
It's been 20 years since a rough draft of the human genome sequence was first released, containing tens of thousands of genes.
We've learnt so much since, with advanced techniques like CRISPR, but there are still tens of thousands of these genes that remain mysterious.
There are many reasons why these genes have so far been overlooked by science, molecular biologist João Rocha and colleagues explain.
They include funding and peer reviewed systems being more skewed towards supporting research on genes with already proven clinical importance, or genes that are more abundant or more widespread across laboratory species.
The Unknome database ranks the protein genes according to how little is known about them, for humans and other species commonly studied in laboratory settings.
To demonstrate how this database can be used, the researchers then took a sample of 260 of our genes ranked as highly unknown in the database that could also be found in the laboratory fly, Drosophila, genome.
They systematically deleted the shared genes in developing flies. Many of the flies did not survive, demonstrating the proteins each of these genes codes for play a crucial role in animal biology.
"These uncharacterized genes have not deserved their neglect," says molecular biologist Sean Munro.
By removing the gene's expression only in some tissues but not others within the flies, the researchers were able to determine some of their functions. Some of the genes associated with male fertility, development, and stress responses.
"There is potential for scientific progress to be accelerated by identifying situations where questions are being inadvertently and unjustifiably neglected," the team writes.
Rocha and colleagues have now identified those neglected questions within the human genome so it's now up to researchers around the world to help accelerate that progress.
"Our database provides a powerful, versatile and efficient platform to identify and select important genes of unknown function for analysis, thereby accelerating the closure of the gap in biological knowledge that the unknome represents," Munroe concludes.
This research was published in PLoS Biology.