In 2003, the year a complete draft of the human genome was released, the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute launched the ENCODE project (ENCyclopedia of DNA Elements), to develop an encyclopedia of the epigenome, that is, of all of the many factors that can change the expression of the genes without changing the genes.
Four years later, the National Institutes of Health funded modENCODE (the Model Organism ENCylopedia of DNA Elements) to work out the epigenomes of two model organisms: the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, lurker among rotten bananas, and the round worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, slitherer between crumbs of soil.
This was big science with a vengeance. The work had been divided among 21 teams, themselves each made up of multiple labs, all toiling away at universities and companies across the country. And that's not counting the research groups tasked with coming up with new ways of handling the floods of data pouring out of the labs.
What was going on?
Sarah C.R. Elgin, PhD, the Viktor Hamburger Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, who led the Washington University lab that is part of one of the modENCODE teams offers an explanation.
"We learned many things from the Human Genome Project," Elgin says, "but of course it didn't answer every question we had!
"Including one of the oldest: We all start life as a single cell. That cell divides into many cells, each of which carries the same DNA. So why are we poor, bare, forked creatures, as Shakespeare put it, instead of ever-expanding balls of identical cells?
"This work," says Elgin, "will help us learn the answer to this question and to many others. It will help us to put meat on the bones of the DNA sequences."
What is the epigenome?
Instead of spewing out long strings of the As, Ts, Gs and Cs like the gene sequencing labs, the epigenetic labs are disgorging voluminous data about the proteins bound to the
|Contact: Diana Lutz|
Washington University in St. Louis