It’s tempting to think of DNA as a two dimensional molecule. A single strand of double helix, or perhaps a string of A, C, T, and G bases. But in actual fact DNA has a complex three dimensional structure, and the way that a strand of DNA is folded and shaped to fit inside the cell nucleus has enormous implications for gene function and cellular health. In the latest edition of ‘Science Happens!’, Carl Zimmer meets with Job Dekker, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, whose work into our complex genetic origami is revealing amazing things about the function of our DNA.


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“Biology textbooks teach these fundamental rules of life with a simple diagram showing DNA looking like an abstract spiral staircase”, Zimmer writes. “But reality is far messier. Each DNA molecule is six feet long. Our cells have to wind it tightly to fit in their interior — without tangling them in knots in the process. In fact, our cells have to unfold and refold DNA in order to read their genes.”

“Today, scientists focus on the ways that gene mutations cause diseases like cancer. But totally normal genes can still malfunction if they get folded in the wrong way. It’s possible that the research going on in Dekker’s lab may eventually reveal a hidden world of “folding diseases.””

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