Cracking the Cellular Code

“In the past few years, biologists have churned out the entire genetic sequence of dozens of organisms, including humans, dogs, mosquitoes, rats, and bacteria. But these strings of genes amount to the most basic molecular parts list, not much more helpful to deciphering how the genes combine to run a living cell than an array of microchips and wires would be for assembling a computer.

Researchers at MIT and at the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have taken a major step toward understanding how those genes are organized to regulate cells. Refining a technique pioneered in geneticist Richard Young’s lab, the team has identified all of the controlling elements in the genome of baker’s yeast, a common laboratory microorganism.

“A parts list is nice, but in moving to an understanding of how a whole cell behaves, this is really the next step,” says Young, who headed the project with Whitehead fellow Ernest Fraenkel and MIT computer scientist David Gifford. “We’ve been able to identify an important part of the genome in a very precise way that is key to regulation of life.” Fraenkel and Gifford published their findings in the September 2 issue of the journal Nature.”