How cells interpret the DNA code to carry out biological functions

Genomes can be surprisingly simple and astonishingly complex at the same time. At first glance, they consist of only four different nucleobases – the individual letters of the DNA code. Bacteria carry their genomes as a simple loop of DNA in their cells. Other cells – known as eukaryotic cells – store their genomes inside a nucleus, in which the DNA is wrapped around proteins and coiled up for compact storage.

band of DNA visible in a gel electrophoresis experiment
Gel electrophoresis is a common tool in molecular biology. Samples of DNA are placed in adjacent wells at the top of a gel, and an electric current applied, which pulls DNA down the gel from top to bottom. Larger DNA fragments are slowed by the gel, and form bands near the top. Smaller fragments travel further, and form bands near the bottom. The brighter a given band, the more DNA at that fragment size (Image: Wikimedia commons).

The nucleobases and proteins of the genome can be modified, replaced, or mutated. In eukaryotic cells, the spatial organisation of the genome determines which genes are active under which circumstances, at what level, and for how long. Dozens of proteins are involved in organising the genome and regulating gene activity. Cells combine these proteins in various ways to adapt to different situations and to fulfil highly specialised and varied functions. All of this makes the study of genomes a complicated endeavour.

The organisation of genomes, and the mechanisms cells use to access genomic information, are investigated across several research units and EMBL sites. While some groups try to understand how the genes on an entire chromosome can be switched off, others investigate the features that define highly active genomic regions. Another area of investigation is the process by which copies of chromosomes are segregated during cell division, so that the two resulting cells end up with the correct chromosomes.

EMBL scientists combine detailed mechanistic studies with techniques to analyse whole genomes. Bioinformatic approaches and experiments in a traditional lab setting complement each other. Together with the development of new statistical tools, these efforts will provide a clearer picture of how our genomes work.

EMBL units researching genomes

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Genome biology

The Genome biology unit uses and develops cutting-edge methods to study how the information in our genome is regulated, processed, and utilised, and how its alteration leads to disease.

Structural and computational biology

Scientists in this unit use integrated structural and computational techniques to study biology at scales from molecular structures to organismal communities.


Genomics news from EMBL’s six sites

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From microscopy to mycology, from development to disease modelling, EMBL researchers cover a wide range of topics in the biological sciences.