Research findings could lead to new biomarkers for genetic tests and give clinical laboratories new capabilities to diagnose different health conditions
New insights continue to emerge about “junk DNA” (aka, non-coding DNA). For pathologists and clinical laboratories, these discoveries may have value and eventually lead to new biomarkers for genetic testing.
One recent example comes from researchers at Stanford Medicine in California who recently learned how non-coding DNA—which makes up 98% of the human genome—affects gene expression, the function that leads to observable characteristics in an organism (phenotypes).
The research also could lead to a better understanding of how short tandem repeats (STRs)—the number of times a gene is copied into RNA for protein use—affect gene expression as well, according to Stanford.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Science titled, “Short Tandem Repeats Bind Transcription Factors to Tune Eukaryotic Gene Expression.”
“We’ve known for a while that short tandem repeats or STRs, aren’t junk because their presence or absence correlates with changes in gene expression. But we haven’t known how they exert these effects,” said study lead Polly Fordyce, PhD (above), Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Genetics at Stanford University, in a news release. The research could lead to new clinical laboratory biomarkers for genetic testing. (Photo copyright: Stanford University.)
To Bind or Not to Bind
“Researchers have spent a lot of time characterizing these transcription factors and figuring out which sequences—called motifs—they like to bind to the most,” said the study lead Polly Fordyce, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Genetics at Stanford University, in a Stanford Medicine news release.
“But current models don’t adequately explain where and when transcription factors bind to non-coding DNA to regulate gene expression. Sometimes, no transcription factor is attached to something that looks like a perfect motif. Other times, transcription factors bind to stretches of DNA that aren’t motifs,” the news release explains.
But why do transcription factors target some places in the genome and not others?
“To solve the puzzle of why transcription factors go to some places in the genome and not to others, we needed to look beyond the highly preferred motifs,” Fordyce added. “In this study, we’re showing that the STR sequence around the motif can have a really big effect on transcription factor binding, providing clues as to what these repeated sequences might be doing.”
Such information could aid in understanding certain hereditary conditions and diseases.
“Variations in STR length have been associated with changes in gene expression and implicated in several complex phenotypes such as schizophrenia, cancer, autism, and Crohn’s disease. However, the mechanism by which STRs affect transcription remains unknown,” the researchers wrote in Science.
Special Assays Explore Binding
According to their paper, the research team turned to the Fordyce Lab’s previously developed microfluidic binding assays (MITOMI, k–MITOMI, and STAMMP) to analyze the impact of different DNA sequences on transcription factor binding.
“In the experiment we asked, ‘How do these changes impact the strength of transcription factor binding?’ We saw a surprisingly large effect. Varying the STR sequence around a motif can have a 70-fold impact on the binding,” Fordyce wrote.
In an accompanying Science article titled, “Repetitive DNA Regulates Gene Expression,” Thomas Kuhlman, PhD, Assistant Professor, Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Riverside, wrote that the study “demonstrates that STRs exert their effects by directly binding transcription factor proteins, thus explaining how STRs might influence gene expression in both normal and diseased states.”
Junk DNA Affects Blood Pressure
In another study, researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, Ontario, examined the possible effect of non-coding DNA on genes related to blood pressure.
“This research unveils, for the first time, the intricate connection between how variants in the non-coding genome affect genes that are associated with blood pressure and with hypertension. What we’ve created is a kind of functional map of the regulators of blood pressure genes, “said Philipp Maass, PhD, Lead Researcher and Assistant Professor Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, in a news release.
The research team used massively parallel reporter assay (MPRA) technology to analyze 4,608 genetic variants associated with blood pressure.
In “Systematic Characterization of Regulatory Variants of Blood Pressure Genes,” published in the journal Cell Genomics, the SickKids scientists noted that high throughput technology identified “regulatory variants at blood pressure loci.”
The findings could aid precision medicine for cardiovascular health and may possibly be adopted to other conditions, according to The Hospital for Sick Children.
“The variants we have characterized in the non-coding genome could be used as genomic markers for hypertension, laying the groundwork for future genetic research and potential therapeutic targets for cardiovascular disease,” Maass noted.
Why All the ‘Junk’ DNA?
Clinical laboratory scientists may wonder why genetic research has primarily focused on 20,000 genes within the genome, leaving the “junk” DNA for later investigation. So did researchers at Harvard University.
“After the Human Genome Project, scientists found that there were around 20,000 genes within the genome, a number that some researchers had already predicted. Remarkably, these genes comprise only about 1-2% of the three billion base pairs of DNA. This means that anywhere from 98-99% of our entire genome must be doing something other than coding for proteins,” they wrote in a blog post.
“Imagine being given multiple volumes of encyclopedias that contained a coherent sentence in English every 100 pages, where the rest of the space contained a smattering of uninterpretable random letters and characters. You would probably start to wonder why all those random letters and characters were there in the first place, which is the exact problem that has plagued scientists for decades,” they added.
Not only is junk DNA an interesting study subject, but ongoing research may also produce useful new biomarkers for genetic diagnostics and other clinical laboratory testing. Thus, medical lab professionals may want to keep an eye on new developments involving non-coding DNA.
—Donna Marie Pocius