Junk DNA can rise from the dead and haunt you

For the first time, researchers find that a dead gene can wake up and cause disease.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

Scientists have found that junk DNA can come back to life and can cause disease.

As it turns out, a region of the genome — that is hundreds of thousands of years old, mind you — can bring on trouble.

Soon after the zombie gene wakes up, people can no longer smile and their upper body muscles begin to waste away.

Those victims suffer from facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), one of the more common forms of the genetic disease.

1 in 20,000 people suffer from FSHD — what makes it different than diseases like diabetes is that inheriting the gene means the person will one day get the genetic disease.

While scientists knew genetics was to blame, they didn't exactly know why and how it caused disease. Now they know, zombies are to blame.

The researchers published their results inScience.

There's a certain rhythm to this madness. To cause disease, the gene needs to be repeated a number of times and has to have the right sequence. The trouble gene is found on chromosome 4 (which is a region scientists eyed for several decades).

If the zombie gene is repeated more than 10 times, the person will not develop FSHD. Researchers believe the surplus copies change the structure of the chromosome so the zombie gene can't attack. Otherwise, the gene (DUX4) is allowed to be made and becomes toxic to the muscle cells.

This finding fundamentally changes how geneticists think about simple genetic diseases. It's clear that even though FSHD was thought to be a simple disease because having the gene meant the person would definitely get the disease, it's actually much more complex than that.

In the future, researchers could knock out this dead gene and develop new treatments.

Scientists believe they will discover that other diseases will have similar causes.

Geneticist Dr. Francis Collins told The New York Times, "the first law of the genome is that anything that can go wrong, will."

via The New York Times

Photo: ynse/ flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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