Genes make up only a tiny percentage of the human genome. The rest, which has remained measurable but mysterious, may hold vital clues about the genetic origins of disease. Using a new mapping strategy, a collaborative team led by researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and MIT has begun to assign meaning to the regions beyond our genes and has revealed how minute changes in these regions might be connected to common diseases. The researchers' findings appeared online on March 23, 2011 in Nature. The results have implications for interpreting genome-wide association studies (GWAS) – large-scale studies of hundreds or thousands of people in which scientists look across the genome for single "letter" changes or SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that influence the risk of developing a particular disease. The majority of SNPs associated with disease reside outside of genes and, until now, very little was known about the functions of most of them. "Our ultimate goal is to figure out how our genome dictates our biology," said co-senior author Dr. Manolis Kellis, a Broad associate member and associate professor of computer science at MIT. "But 98.5 percent of the genome is non-protein coding, and those non-coding regions are generally devoid of annotation." The term "epigenome" refers to a layer of chemical information on top of the genetic code, which helps determine when and where (and in what types of cells) genes will be active. This layer of information consists of chemical modifications, or "chromatin marks," that appear across the genetic landscape of every cell, and can differ dramatically between cell types.
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