Learning a foreign lingo

July 14, 2000

The metaphor that the genome is a genetic book of life is very useful, but it breaks down when confronted with the complexity of its reading.

The various processes that make and power us are controlled not by individual genes, but by whole suites of them, each "switching" on and off at precisely the right time and in the right place.

It seems the book of life is without beginning or end, with an unfathomable number of narratives built from sentences plucked from many different pages, often needing to be read simultaneously.

Marc Zabeau, director of the department of plant genetics at the University of Ghent, Belgium, one of the largest such centres in Europe, has been developing a technique to extract sense from this complexity.

"The goal is to understand which genes are active in which biological processes," he says.

His technique monitors the changing levels of expression of all genes, whether previously known or not, by analysing messenger RNA. This is produced when a gene is switched on or expressed and each piece corresponds to a specific gene.

Dr Zabeau looks at the amount of each RNA fragment at a particular point in time and from this he can calculate the level to which each gene is being expressed.

This means prior knowledge of an organism's genome is not needed.

His work with the tobacco plant has enabled him to watch up to 80 per cent of its entire genome in action throughout one of the most important processes of life - cell division.

The study has revealed the astonishing genetic complexity involved, identifying about 1,200 genes, perhaps 5 per cent of the plant's genes, that play some role in this, either directly or indirectly.

As whole genome analysis technology matures, scientists will at last be able to read the genome as it was supposed to be read.

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