ENCODE: The human encyclopaedia

From Natuure:

EncodeEwan Birney would like to create a printout of all the genomic data that he and his collaborators have been collecting for the past five years as part of ENCODE, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements. Finding a place to put it would be a challenge, however. Even if it contained 1,000 base pairs per square centimetre, the printout would stretch 16 metres high and at least 30 kilometres long. ENCODE was designed to pick up where the Human Genome Project left off. Although that massive effort revealed the blueprint of human biology, it quickly became clear that the instruction manual for reading the blueprint was sketchy at best. Researchers could identify in its 3 billion letters many of the regions that code for proteins, but those make up little more than 1% of the genome, contained in around 20,000 genes — a few familiar objects in an otherwise stark and unrecognizable landscape. Many biologists suspected that the information responsible for the wondrous complexity of humans lay somewhere in the ‘deserts’ between the genes. ENCODE, which started in 2003, is a massive data-collection effort designed to populate this terrain. The aim is to catalogue the ‘functional’ DNA sequences that lurk there, learn when and in which cells they are active and trace their effects on how the genome is packaged, regulated and read.

After an initial pilot phase, ENCODE scientists started applying their methods to the entire genome in 2007. Now that phase has come to a close, signalled by the publication of 30 papers, in Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology. The consortium has assigned some sort of function to roughly 80% of the genome, including more than 70,000 ‘promoter’ regions — the sites, just upstream of genes, where proteins bind to control gene expression — and nearly 400,000 ‘enhancer’ regions that regulate expression of distant genes (see page 57)1. But the job is far from done, says Birney, a computational biologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK, who coordinated the data analysis for ENCODE. He says that some of the mapping efforts are about halfway to completion, and that deeper characterization of everything the genome is doing is probably only 10% finished. A third phase, now getting under way, will fill out the human instruction manual and provide much more detail.

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