Image credits: Hein Boekhout (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Junk no more

DNA sequences previously thought to be useless are in fact essential to organize chromosomes.


On Earth, life is divided into three domains. The smallest of these domains includes all the creatures, from sunflowers to yeasts to humans, that have the genetic information within their cells encased in a structure known as the nucleus. The genomes of these organisms are formed of long pieces of DNA, called chromosomes, which are packaged tightly and then unpackaged every time the cell divides. When a cell is not dividing, the chromosomes in the nucleus are loosely bundled up together.

It is well known that DNA is the blueprint for the building blocks of life, but actually most of the genetic information in a cell codes for nothing, and has unknown roles. An example of such ‘junk DNA’ is pericentrometric satellite DNA, small repetitive sequences found on all chromosomes.

However, new experiments by Jagannathan et al. show that, in the nucleus of animal cells, certain DNA binding proteins make chromosomes huddle together by attaching to multiple pericentrometric satellite DNA sequences on different chromosomes. In fact, if these proteins are removed from mice and fruit flies cells grown in the laboratory, the chromosomes cannot be clustered together. Instead, they ‘float away’, and the membranes of the nucleus get damaged, possibly buckling under the pressure of the unorganized DNA.

These events damage the genetic information, which can lead to the cell dying or forming tumors. ‘Junk DNA’ therefore appears to participate in fundamental cellular processes across species, a result that opens up several new lines of research.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based:
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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