Cures Found in 'Junk DNA'

Researchers looked to so-called "junk DNA" for the solution to the AIDS problem. Some scientists believe that useful functions may be conserved in this DNA.

A group of scientists led by Nitya Venkataraman and Alexander Colewhether wanted to try a new approach to fighting HIV - one that worked with the body's own immune system. They knew Old World monkeys had a built-in immunity to HIV: a protein called retrocyclin, which can prevent HIV from entering cell walls and starting an infection. So they began poring over the human genome, looking to see if humans had a latent gene that could manufacture retrocyclin too. It turned out that we did, but a "nonsense mutation" in the gene had turned it off at some point in our evolutionary history

The researchers found a way to use aminoglycosides, which itself can cause errors when RNA transcribes information from DNA to make proteins. In tests on human cells, the method worked: the cells made retrocyclin, and became AIDS-resistant.

Science fiction fans have been treated to popularized versions of these ideas in recent books and TV shows. In his 1999 novel Darwin's Radio, Greg Bear writes about how ancient human functionality is conserved.

"Packer says that SHEVA hasn't changed much in fifteen thousand years," Mitch said. "He finds that astonishing, if they're junk DNA."

"They're hardly junk," Kaye said. "The genes have been conserved for as much as thirty million years. They're constantly refreshed, tested, conserved... Locket up in tight-packed chromatin, protected by insulators... they have to be."

In Genesis, a 1994 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation,

Barclay, a hypochondriac, visits Crusher, who gives him a synthetic T-cell to activate one of his dormant genes. However it has the undesired side-effect of activating all his dormant introns...

[Finally] Data finishes the construction of the modified retro-virus and releases it into the air which returns everyone to their original state.

From Daily Galaxy; thanks to Moira for pointing this story out with references.

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