Equations, drawings, notes and formulas cover the glass walls of the genomic research lab at Baylor College of Medicine, scrawled in dry-erase marker. “Don’t pay attention to that; we’re still figuring it out,” somebody says. “Those are equations, and that… That, I don’t know what it is.”
To an outsider, the marks read like hieroglyphics. But new research about DNA is a subject even a child can understand—at least according to Erez Lieberman Aiden, the director of Baylor’s Center for Genome Architecture, who vows his 5-year-old son “can totally grasp it” because “it’s just easy.”
If it were stretched out, the human genome inside each cell in the body would span six feet. Instead, it’s folded tightly into the size of a granule of talcum powder that’s invisible to the naked eye. To fit into that space, the genome must loop over itself, again and again—about 10,000 times in total—forming what looks like a ball of ramen noodles. During the process, anomalies may arise, which can, in turn, lead to a number of hereditary diseases. But what if you could surgically alter the loops? Correct them?
That’s exactly what Aiden has done, recently performing the world’s first “surgery” on the human genome, using a protein as a kind of editing tool to manipulate DNA sequences of molecules, or “letters”—each strand has 3 billion of them—and destroy, move and create new loops. “We can take something that says ‘Reagan’ and make it say ‘Rogan,’ and the genome won’t recognize the word anymore,” Aiden explains.
The result: scientists are now one step closer to correcting genetic mutations—and potentially eradicating the diseases they cause. But there’s still much to learn, as they don’t yet know exactly which conditions result from which malformed loops. “One of the things we need to be able to do is go back and revisit this stuff in great detail and show that, yes, indeed, disease X is actually caused by loop Y, and if you modify loop Y you can get rid of the disease phenotype,” says Aiden. “Those are things that are immediately on the docket now that we can do this.”
It was only in December 2014 that Aiden and his fellow researchers successfully mapped the genome’s 10,000 loops, solving a mystery scientists had been working on since the 1970s. While his team is moving fast—this groundbreaking genome surgery came less than a year later—it will nevertheless take some time before the procedure becomes a reality for patients. “I don’t think this will be used in the next five years,” Aiden says. “It’s going to take a while before one can do that.”