In two major studies published in the journal Nature, the
consortium mapped how a network of switches, built into human DNA,
controls where and when genes are turned on and off.
The three-year long project, called FANTOM5 and led by the RIKEN
Center for Life Science Technologies in Japan, involved more than
250 scientists across 20 countries and regions.
"Humans are complex multicellular organisms composed of at least 400
distinct cell types. This beautiful diversity of cell types allow us
to see, think, hear, move and fight infection — yet all of this is
encoded in the same genome," said Alistair Forrest, scientific
coordinator of FANTOM5.
He explained that the difference between cell types comes down to
which parts of the genome they use — for instance, brain cells use
different genes than liver cells, and therefore work very
"In FANTOM5, we have for the first time systematically investigated
exactly what genes are used in virtually all cell types across the
human body, and the regions which determine where the genes are read
from the genome," he said.
The team studied the largest ever set of cell types and tissues from
humans and mice so that they could identify the location of switches
within the genome that turn individual genes on or off.
They also mapped where and when the switches are active in different
cell types and how they interact with each other.
David Hume, director of the Roslin Institute at Britain's Edinburgh
University and one of the lead researchers on the project, used the
analogy of an airplane:
"We have made a leap in understanding the function of all of the
parts. And we have gone well beyond that — to understanding how they
are connected and control the structures that enable flight," he
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Although there are many years' more research ahead, researchers hope
the FANTOM5 work will be a reference atlas to help them navigate the
genome and figure out which genes are involved, and how, in a whole
range of diseases: from cancer, to diabetes, to blood diseases, to
In a linked study, a Roslin Institute team used information from the
atlas to investigate the regulation of an important set of genes
required to build muscle and bone.
Another study used the FANTOM5 atlas to look at the regulation of
genes in cells of the blood, producing what scientists described as
a roadmap of blood cells that will help them pinpoint where and how
cancerous tumors start to grow.
"Now that we have these incredibly detailed pictures of each of
these cell types, we can now work backwards to compare cancer cells
to the cells they came from originally to better understand what may
have triggered the cells to malfunction, so we will be better
equipped to develop new and more effective therapies," said Forrest.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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