Genes and Junk
Do you remember learning about Junk DNA when you took Biology in high school? The term was used to described 98% of the human genome that doesn’t make up its approximately 22,000 genes. We used to think that Junk DNA didn’t serve a purpose, but that was before we discovered special elements called non-coding RNAs that call Junk DNA their home. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s take a step back.
Genes are sequences of DNA that contain the blueprints for the proteins that make your cells and organs function. Before a gene can become a protein, its transformed into a molecule called an RNA. RNAs contain messages that tell a cell’s machinery what types of protein to make and how many.
Not Junk After All
Now back to “Junk DNA”… scientists thought that because this mass of DNA sequences was never turned into protein, it served no purpose. It turns out that they couldn’t be farther from the facts.
There are actually sequences of DNA in our genomes that are blueprints for RNAs that never become proteins. Scientists call them “non-coding” RNAs, and they play very important roles in the body such as replicating DNA and regulating gene expression – deciding which genes are turned on and which are turned off.
Another important function that non-coding RNAs control is cell differentiation, or the maturation of immature cells into adult cells. Differentiation is a complicated process, and because non-coding RNAs are relatively new to the scientific world, we haven’t figured out their exact roles in the differentiation of stem cells into adult cells.
Understanding Immune Cell Development
In a study published this week in Nature Immunology, UCLA scientists reported the discovery of 3000 new genes that make a type of non-coding RNA called a long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) that regulates the differentiation of stem cells into mature immune cells like B and T cells, which play a key role in fighting infection. This important study was funded in part by CIRM.
Using sequencing technology and bioinformatics, they mapped the RNA landscape (known as the transcriptome) of rare stem cells isolated from human bone marrow (hematopoietic stem cells) and the thymus (lymphoid progenitor cells). They identified over 9000 genes that produced lncRNAs that were important for moderating various stages of immune cell development. Of this number, over 3000 were genes whose lncRNAs hadn’t been found before.
First author, David Casero explained the importance of their discovery in a UCLA press release:
Our findings are exciting because they provide a huge and unique resource for the whole immunology community. We will now be able to drill down on the specific LncRNA genes that seem to be most important at each stage of immune cell development and understand how they function individually and together to control the process.
Co-senior author and UCLA professor Gay Crooks explained that the goal of their work was to gain a better understanding of how the immune system develops in order to battle serious diseases that affect it and open up avenues for generating better cell therapies.
If we can understand how the immune system is generated and maintained during life, we can find ways to improve production of immune cells for potential therapies after chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplant, or for patients with HIV and inherited immune deficiencies. In addition, by understanding the genes that control this process we can better understand how they are changed in cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
While this study focused on the role of lncRNAs in the development of the immune system and the differentiation of immune stem cells, the technology in this study can be used to understand the development of other systems and organs.
Scientists are already publishing papers on the role of lncRNAs in the differentiation of stem cells in the brain and heart, and further work in this field will undoubtedly uncover many new and important lncRNA genes. If the pace keeps up, the term “Junk DNA” will need to be retired to the junk yard.