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Viewing genes inside living cells
May 2, 2017, 5:45 pm

Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the United States have for the first time developed a way to track genes inside living cells.

The new technique, which allows scientists to watch genes as they move in three dimensions within a living cell, enables the creation of highly accurate 3D maps of their location that helps determine the effect specific genes have.

These maps of gene locations could lead scientists to a vastly more sophisticated appreciation of how our genes work and interact, and how they affect our health. "We are able to image basically any region in the genome that we want, in real time, in living cells. It works beautifully. ... With the traditional method, which is the gold standard, basically you will never be able to get this kind of data, because you have to kill the cells to get the imaging. But here we are doing it in live cells and in real time," said one excited research team member.

DNA is often depicted as tidy strands stretched out in straight lines. But in reality, our DNA is clumped up inside the nuclei of our cells like cooked spaghetti. "We have two meters of DNA folded into a nucleus that is so tiny that 10,000 of them will fit onto the tip of a needle," said one researcher. "We know that DNA is not linear but forms large, three-dimensional loops. We want to basically image those kinds of interactions so as to get an idea of how the genome is organized in three-dimensional space, because that is functionally important," he added.

Thinking about DNA as a neat line, he noted, can create misconceptions about gene interactions. Two genes that are far apart in a linear diagram may actually be quite close when folded up inside the cell's nucleus, and that can affect what they do.

The new approach, developed in conjunction with the University of California, uses the CRISPR gene editing system that has proved a sensation in the science world. The researchers flag specific genomic regions with fluorescent proteins and then use CRISPR to do chromosome imaging. If they want, they can then use CRISPR to turn genes on and off, using the imaging approach to see what happens and thereby overcoming a longstanding limitation of gene imaging.

Using this technique, researchers can look at the single-cell level, while the cell is still alive, and make video images of what is happening inside the cell.

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