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DNA makes big decisions for cells

By Sam Boykin
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Michael White, 37, is a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, where he researches the basic building blocks of life. White says every human has about 10 trillion cells, and each cell contains DNA – hereditary material composed of different cell sequences that dictate each cell’s function and directs them when to turn “on” or “off.” This enables cells to perform tasks ranging from determining hair color to fighting cancer. In his blog Gene Logic (, White explores how genes “make decisions” as well as how humans interact and are influenced by information. Find White on Twitter at @genologos.

Q: Can you explain the gene decision-making process?

Genes are always making decisions about when to come on, which basically means when to produce the right amount of protein to do their job. This decision is based on each gene’s regulatory DNA, which basically tells it what to do. But when genes make bad decisions you get disease like cancer or diabetes. How is it our DNA can encode information to tell genes when to turn on or off? The answer is still not clear.

Q: Can the decision-making process be influenced?

There’s a lot of hope and research. One particular case involves genes in retinal/eye cells. There are cases of blindness, like macular degeneration, because genes fail to come on at the right time and place. We’re trying to understand what it is about these mutations in DNA associated with eye genes that make them fail to come on. The goal is to be able to treat these genes and find some way to turn them on.

Q: Are some people predisposed to certain gene behavior?

We’re getting pretty good at looking at someone’s genetic sequence and predicting if they’re likely to get a certain disease. But while we’re sometimes able to tell if a particular mutation increases the risk for disease, we still don’t know why it happens, and that’s where I come in. I’m trying to understand why a particular change in your DNA will lead to your increased risk for a certain kind of disease.

Q: In your blog, how do you relate this research to other aspects of life?

I’m interested in how information can be encoded in a computer or a gene and influence our environment and behavior. I have 7-year-old twin girls, and it’s been an interesting experiment to see how they are so different. One is a social diva and the other is shy and quiet. A lot of that is due to genetics.

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