12 September 2017

ERC Starting Grant for mapping genetic punctuation


Researchers are about to dive deeper into the secret world of the transcription of non-coding DNA of plants, the so-called junk-DNA. Associate professor Sebastian Marquardt receives 1.5 million euros from the ERC to explore its function as genetic punctuation.

The research team from Copenhagen Plant Science Centre at PLEN are going to investigate the transcription of the so-called junk-DNA (Image: Pixabay).

DNA is a very complex library of genes coding for everything from a plants ability to absorb and store energy of sunlight to the color of a human hair straw.  Curiously, by far most of the DNA in complex organisms, such as plants and humans, doesn’t code for anything –the so-called junk-DNA.

Nevertheless, the junk-DNA is transcribed into long non-coding RNA-strands, which is a fundamental yet partly unexplored process in many organisms. But the process leaves important molecular traces behind that may turn genes on and off and thereby regulate whether they are expressed in the organism or not, thus working as genetic punctuation.

Is it the details in this complex punctuation, formerly unknown, which the scientists from Copenhagen Plant Science Center on the Department of Plant and Environmental sciences are about to investigate with the grant of 1.5 million euros from the ERC.

“The aim of our project is to help us better understand what makes an organism different from the others, since many differences observed in the DNA of the organisms, are found in the non-coding sequences. We create a fundamental understanding that might lead us to new discoveries which may be useful in the industry,” says grant-receiver, project leader and associate professor, Sebastian Marquardt.

Fundamental curiosity and research perspectives

Sebastian Marquardt and his research team will use the grant to map out important areas for non-coding transcription in the DNA - a field in which Sebastian Marquardt spent the last years researching.

“During our earlier research in budding yeast we found that transcription of the non-coding DNA in itself can be very important for the organism. An insight in these mechanisms might be useful in synthesis biology with the purpose of regulating the circuit in production,” Sebastian Marquardt explains and continues:

“Curiosity of how the system works is a very fundamental part of our project, but there are also many branches of the research which will be directly applicable to society.”

Further research in the function of junk-DNA

Science is already aware that transcription of the non-coding DNA is part of a process called tandem Transcription interference (tTI), in which the junk-DNA initiates the gene expression in the coding part of the DNA:

“And we want to find out how much of the expression of an organism actually origins from the non-coding DNA. However, because this part of the DNA doesn’t follow the same rules as the protein coding sequences it is hard to figure out exactly what its function is. The results will bring us closer to understanding and using mechanisms,” Sebastian Marquardt explains.