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KNOXVILLE — A group of scientists from the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have made a unique discovery that could lead to a richer understanding of how human genes interact.

Their work, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, found that by looking at the frequency of how genes are activated and deactivated, they could detect how one gene’s fluctuations affected others around it.

Nature is one of the world’s leading journals of science, publishing the top research across all scientific disciplines.

According to Dr. Michael Simpson, director of the Molecular-Scale Engineering and Nanoscale Technologies (MENT) Group at UT and ORNL, the research in the article on these fluctuations known as “genetic noise” opens the door for the next logical step in genetics.

“Early research focused on mapping, or sequencing, the genome, and then there was a move to annotation, or understanding what each gene was responsible for,” said Simpson. “With this discovery, we can see how the genes interact by seeing how the noise in one gene shows up in other genes.”

Simpson likened the relationship between the genes to an electrical circuit: turning one gene on or off can affect whether other genes in a cell are activated. By better understanding that interaction, scientists will have a clearer picture of how genes work in partnership with each other.

This understanding of the relationships between genes could lead to a better approach for targeting drugs to treat disease.

As part of the research, scientists from UT and ORNL engineered unique cells that were programmed with genes that would cause them to glow when those genes were activated. Doing this allowed the team to have a much clearer picture of when certain genes were activated – this facilitated the research significantly, according to Dr. Gary Sayler, director of UT’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology (CEB).

“The research is really gaining traction,” said Sayler. “By having these cells to measure the fluctuation, we can gain better insights into its mathematical qualities.”

The authors of the article are Dr. Derek Austin of MENT; Dr. Michael Allen, of CEB and MENT; Mike McCollum, a UT graduate student in electrical and computer engineering; Roy Dar, a UT graduate student in physics and a member of MENT; John Wilgus, of CEB and MENT; Dr. Nagiza Samatova, of ORNL’s Computer Science and Mathematics Division; Sayler, CEB director and a distinguished professor in microbiology; Dr. Chris Cox, a UT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Simpson, director of MENT and a UT-ORNL joint professor.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.

The Nature article is available at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v439/n7076/full/nature04194.html.
Contact: Jay Mayfield (865-974-9409), jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu