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Tuesday, May 02, 2000

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The Scientist Confessions of an Ex-Fly Pusher
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"Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the fly genome is evident by considering the other two eukaryotes to have had their genomes laid bare--the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.8 The million-celled fruit fly has 13,601 protein-encoding genes, compared to 18,425 for the 1,000-celled tiny worm and 6,000 or so for the unicellular yeast. "It's fascinating to think that there are only 13,601 genes, less than C. elegans and just a couple of times that of yeast. Thirteen thousand genes doesn't even sound like much to build a worm with, let alone a fly!" exclaims Michael Young, head of the laboratory of genetics at Rockefeller University, who studies clock genes.

Also surprising is that the fly seems to get along on very little. "Once we got the gene count, we realized that not many proteins are involved in this complicated little beast. The animal has a basic toolbox, and [it] can put bits and pieces of that box together to create a complex biological system that can execute a fantastic ability such as behavior," Young adds. The insect apparently employs nested genes and alternate splicing patterns that peel off different-size mRNAs from the same gene. The overall effect is to wring more than one meaning from a DNA sequence."

"And although a fly with a human head isn't a likely scenario, the human genome sequence will probably confirm and extend the homologies between us and them. More generally, the similar sizes and unexpected streamlined nature of the eukaryotic genomes sequenced to date is stimulating a great rethinking of how DNA orchestrates life. Concludes Smith, "There may only be a couple of thousand proteins in the living universe. But duplication and modification over and over has led to a plethora of genes that make up all the things that walk around our planet."

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Bioinformatics will be at the core of biology in the 21st century. In fields ranging from structural biology to genomics to biomedical imaging, ready access to data and analytical tools are fundamentally changing the way investigators in the life sciences conduct research and approach problems. Complex, computationally intensive biological problems are now being addressed and promise to significantly advance our understanding of biology and medicine. No biological discipline will be unaffected by these technological breakthroughs.


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