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UCLA research sheds light on genetic factors involved in disease

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Each individual is genetically unique and carries a unique version of the human genome. On January 8, UCLA genetic researchers published the results of a 2.5 year study in the journal Nature; the investigators found that the expression of a typical gene is influenced by many more genetic variants than previously thought. They note that their research could increase understanding of disease risk in humans because genetic variants that influence disease often act by affecting the expression of genes. They explain that clinical applications, which could benefit disease treatment, could eventually be developed from a better understanding of the process of genetic variants and protein expression.

The study authors note that some of the genetic differences influence traits such as height, weight, or vulnerability to certain diseases. However, what these genetic variants specifically represent, and how they exert their impact is currently poorly understood. In the new study, the investigators developed a novel approach to study how these differences between individuals affect how strongly genes are expressed, or translated into the proteins that perform the actual work in cells. They conducted their research with different strains of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is a single-celled fungus that provides an excellent model for the study of cellular and molecular biology and genetics. They examined hundreds of thousands of genetically different yeast cells; this represented orders of magnitude much larger than previous research. Therefore, their approach was statistically powerful and provided increased understanding regarding how genetic differences influence gene expression. The investigators also directly studied protein levels; this marked a departure from previous studies that focused on the levels of messenger RNA (mRNA), which are intermediate molecules that cells use to read genes and translate them into proteins. Compared to proteins, mRNAs are easier to measure; however, their levels do not always correspond to protein levels.

Genetic research is the term used by scientists for the study of how heredity affects living organisms. Genes contain all of the information that is needed to create a new organism, and they are housed in DNA. Researchers study these genes to determine how diseases are inherited as well as how beneficial traits are passed along. Genetic research is used when trying to determine treatments for particular diseases. Scientists study various genes that are associated with a condition. They may try to develop a way to switch the gene off, produce a medication that will shut the gene down, or change the process that a gene goes through that leads to the development of a genetic disease.