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In the NewsL Salt Lake Tribune
The Gregg lab in the Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy uncovered gene expression effects in the mammalian brain that cause some neurons to express your mom’s gene and others to express your Dad’s.
For over a century genetics researchers have known that, for most genes, we inherit one copy from mom and one from dad. Both copies were thought to be expressed relatively equally throughout life. But new research by Wei-Chao Huang and Elliott Ferris from the Gregg lab published in Neuron finds that the picture in the brain is much more nuanced. Rather than two unwavering beacons, many genes are more like twinkling city lights with one copy switching off at certain times and in specific brain regions and cells. The partial shut-down offers a previously unappreciated layer of control over the expression of maternal and paternal gene copies in brain cells.
The phenomenon could also change our thinking about how some gene mutations contribute to disease. Normally, having two copies of a gene acts as a protective buffer in case one is defective. The new findings suggest that periods when the healthy gene copy is turned off could be critical windows during which cells are particularly vulnerable to a mutation in the other copy. In humans, genes associated with mental illness are among those that twinkle, suggesting new ways in which disease could be exacerbated and new directions for research.