That nagging internal feeling that prompts you to seek sleep at night and wake up in the morning to eat, work, and play is, it turns out, genetic, and it’s not just in people. Almost all living things – from animals to plants as well as many microorganisms and fungi – have an internal body clock, or circadian rhythm.
Yet scientists have been puzzled as to how these genes work. Now, scientists at Virginia Tech have taken one step closer to an answer with DNA from a mouse, a petri dish, and a lot of patience. In a new study published in the journal Genes & Development, Shihoko Kojima, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech College of Science and a researcher at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and her team have identified a new gene, Per2AS, which controls the sleep / wake cycle in mice. Per2AS appears to be a new type of gene, known as a non-coding gene. Unlike most other genes, Per2AS is not translated from RNA into a subsequent protein, making its function unclear so far. (Circadian rhythms derive from the Latin circa diem, or “about a day.”)
The study has been underway for several years. New, exactly. Why the long term? Okay, that’s complicated. Literally. “It was difficult to know what his job was because Per2AS was a non-coding gene,” Kojima said. “Scientists have accumulated a lot of knowledge and tools to understand the function of traditional genes. However, these tools cannot be easily applicable to non-traditional genes, such as Per2AS, because most of the tools are made on the basis of unique characteristics common to traditional genes. “
In addition to Kojima, the study includes authorship of 13 members of Virginia Tech, including professors, former staff and alumni. These are Distinguished John Tyson University Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and former Director of Systems Biology at the Academy of Integrated Sciences, Research Specialist Rebecca Mosig; former undergraduates Allison Castaneda, Jacob Deslauriers, Landon Frazier, Kevin He, Naseem Maghzian and Camille Schrier, most of whom are seeking graduate degrees in health care or research; and Blacksburg High School alumni Aarati Pokharel, now at the University of Virginia, and Lily Zhu, now at Johns Hopkins University.
According to Kojima, when the Human Genome Project started about 30 years ago, scientists then believed that most of our genome was made up of traditional genes, because these genes were believed to control unique traits that we all have. – color of eyes and hair, height and weight, personality. This did not turn out to be true.
“It turned out that only 2% of our genome is used for traditional genes and the rest appears to be non-traditional genes. There has been a heated debate as to whether these non-traditional genes are also important for our traits – some say it’s unwanted DNA, while others say they have important functions, ”she said.
Growing evidence suggests that at least some non-traditional genes are important for various biological processes, such as neuronal activities, immune functions, and cell differentiation, as well as the development of diseases, including cancer, neurodegeneration and congenital genetic diseases. “
The big point to remember: a non-traditional gene can have functions to control our body clock and is therefore important for our genome. In other words, non-traditional genes are as vital as their more basic counterparts.
“People also have an equivalent gene,” Kojima said. “However, it is not clear at this point whether the human version has the same function (s) as the mouse version. Most organisms living on Earth have a circadian clock because it is an internal synchronization system. important for adapting to daily environmental changes Caused by the Earth’s rotation Human circadian clock is not much different from that of rodents or insects.
And after? Kojima wants to study the gene in a living mouse model. Not just from a Petri dish. “We also want to know if this gene is found in many other organisms. If so, that would mean that this gene is very important.”