Researchers invent faster gene function identification

Researchers at Ohio University have invented a new way to identify gene function in a matter of days, a discovery that could step up the development of cures and treatments for genetic illnesses.

Researcher Thomas Wagner

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The method may be an improvement over conventional identification techniques, which can take months to years. By using a nonviral gene expression system to inhibit the expression of specific genes in zebrafish, the scientists isolated gene function without destroying the gene, says Thomas Wagner, disti nguished professor of molecular and cellular biology at Ohio University and a principal scientist in the university's Edison Biotechnology Institute. The research was reported in a recent issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The technique could be valuable to scientists working on the human genome project, a worldwide effort to decipher the sequence of the genetic material present in the human body. Identifying a gene sequence is the first step to identifyi ng gene function, which is necessary for the study of genetic disease.

"Our system allows us to stop gene expression long enough to study the gene, then it returns to normal," Wagner says. The technique, dubbed a "knockdown" gene strategy, is much faster than conventional "knockout" methods used to identify gene function. "We're talking a difference between three years with the current methods and two days with ours."

Although 70 percent to 80 percent of the human genome has been sequenced , gene identification is moving at a much slower pace, Wagner says. Using conventional methods, the process can take months or years. At that rate, Wagner says, it could take 400,000 work years -- or longer -- to identify the function of the 100,000 to 200,000 genes in the body.

The T7 expression system used in the new gene function identification technique was patented by Ohio University in January 1997, and has been licensed to Progenitor Inc., a biotechnology company in Menlo Park, Calif. Co- authors of this new study are Yuefeng Xie, a graduate student in molecular and cellular biology, and Xiaozhuo Chen, an assistant professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, both working with Wagner at the Edison Biotechnology Institute at Ohio University.

Research notes are compiled by Kelli Whitlock and Dwight Woodward of University News Services and Periodicals.

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