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Map of Loops and Bends

How DNA folds affects which genes are activated and which stay quiet, Baylor College of Medicine's Suhas Rao tells NPR.

Rao and his colleagues developed a three-dimensional map of the various loops that DNA makes to fit within nuclei. As Rao tells NPR's Arun Rath, how these various loops come together not only can help a lung cell act like a lung cell by making sure that the right genes are activated, they may also be implicated in disease if the wrong genes are turned on.

While some mutations linked to diseases like cancer affect protein-coding genes, other variants affect what Rao describes as switches that turn on or off certain genes. "And so, after the human genome project, we've realized that these hidden switches are really important. But what we've realized is very difficult is connecting these hidden switches to which genes they turn on and off," he tells Rath. "And we can start to understand how mutations that we know are associated with disease, but we don't know why — we can start to understand, well, what are the pathways that are affected?"

Eventually, he says, rather than editing the genome, the folding or organization of the genome could be altered to combat disease.

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