This year the Manchester branch of the British Science Association launched it’s first ever science journalism competition. They presented AS and A-level students across Greater Manchester with the daunting task of interviewing an academic researcher then using this material to create an article accessible to someone with no scientific background. This was by no means a simple task, especially since many of the researchers were working on basic research – the type of work which may not be sensational but which represents the real ‘nuts and bolts’ of scientific research and without which no major breakthroughs would ever be made. Despite the challenges implicit in this task all our entrants stepped up and we were astounded by the quality of work submitted.
Today we’re proud to publish one of our runner up articles written by Hayley Martin from Oswestry School
“The nucleus can be thought of like an engine of a car – driving the actions of the cell”. This is an analogy made by Professor Dean Jackson at Manchester University. With a passion for the genome and forty years of research behind him Professor Jackson has become an expert in understanding mammalian nuclei and chromosomes and how the organisation of their structures defines the cell’s behaviour. In order for these cells to function correctly the genetic code stored in the DNA of each gene has to be interpreted by a process called gene expression, where information from the gene is used in the synthesis of the gene product. These gene products often include proteins such as enzymes, hormones and antibodies, all vital to our survival. Gene expression is immensely complicated due to the number of processes involved. Professor Jackson has been studying these processes and has helped to shed light on exactly why this expression is so complicated.
Transcription is the first process that contributes to gene expression – it is the process whereby information from DNA is copied and made into a new strand of RNA which goes on to synthesize proteins. Professor Jackson has been able to tag newly formed RNA with a fluorescent antibody that can be detected using a laser scanning confocal microscope. This equipment scans a beam of a specific wavelength of light through the specimen, causing the antibodies to fluoresce. The resulting image is displayed in Figure 1. Images such as this have allowed him to locate the areas in the nucleus where this RNA is formed – he refers to these areas as “transcription factories”. He has also found that these factories are made up of many other genes and proteins which assemble into specific complexes. Such knowledge is key to defining the required level of synthesis of each gene product. It also provides the potential for co-regulation of genes in that the way that one gene in this complex is expressed will affect the expression of another gene. Recent work has concluded that genes can have as many as 20 other genetic elements, known as enhancers, that contribute to the gene’s overall expression, which is why it is so complex.
Gene therapy is an exciting modern concept: It offers the prospect of improving lives without the need for drugs with potential side effects and offers possibilities for treating diseases that previously had limited therapeutic options. So far it has been considered as an approach to replacing mutated genes with normal functioning copies, inactivating or removing damaged genes and introducing a new gene that might help the body fight off a disease. With the use of new techniques such as ‘CRISPR’ gene insertion is relatively easy. However Professor Jackson’s research has highlighted how gene therapy isn’t as simple as just inserting a gene – it has to be controlled in the right way by these complex processes in order for the cell to have control of its actions. The difficulty in controlling these actions means that gene therapy is currently a risky process and is not a common treatment. Trials are underway to develop effective gene therapy methods of treating inherited disorders including haemophilia, cystic fibrosis and viral infections such as HIV. We can hope, with advances in the understanding of nuclear structure and processes of gene expression, that safe and effective gene therapy treatments will become a reality.
Post by: Hayley Martin – courtesy of Sarah Fox (Volunteer with the British Science Association)