How do healthy cells turn cancerous? Their DNA gradually accumulates errors. Most of these errors aren’t important, but occasionally they stop the cell from working properly. They might cause a cell to grow out of control – and this can lead to cancer.
In the cells that make up your body, about 2 metres (6 feet) of DNA – strings of genes – are coiled up and packaged into a typically roundish nucleus. This nucleus is only about one hundred-thousandth of a metre wide. I’ve said before that the DNA packed into the nucleus “appears to be a tangled mess”. But looks can be deceptive.
In this great little video Carl Zimmer challenges the idea that DNA in the nucleus is arranged randomly. Job Dekker and his group are finding that the nucleus is actually very organised. Zimmer conjures up an image of tiny robots in the cell folding the DNA very precisely.Science Happens! Episode 5: Everything you thought you knew about the shape of DNA is wrong]
Some genes control other genes. Dekker’s research suggests that the way DNA folds helps this process – by bringing controlling genes close to the genes they regulate. One cause of cancer could be bad folding that interferes with this control mechanism.
Dekker’s group is trying to work out which genes lie next to each other and how DNA is folded. The answer will be extremely complex. Dekker thinks that one day this knowledge will make it possible to fix badly folded DNA in cancer cells.
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