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Kiwi scientist helps find what makes cells different

March 27, 2014

Kiwi scientist helps find what makes cells different

Ever wondered why some part of your body get fat but others don’t? The answer lies in the many different types of cells we have in our bodies.

A global project that includes Massey University Albany lecturer in Bioinformatics and Genomics Dr Sebastian Schmeier is helping us to understand why cells act differently.

Different types of cells turn different genes on and off, and this gives the cells their unique properties. But understanding why different genes are on or off in a particular type of cell is a mystery that Dr Schmeier and collegues are working to understand.

All genes have central control regions, called promoters, that decide whether they are turned on or turned off. In a major breakthrough, the project on which Dr. Schmeier works, known as the FANTOM5 project, has identified the central control regions for all human genes.

“To understand why, for example, fat cells behave differently to brain cells, we need to know how different genes are turned on and off in different cells. The problem has been that the locations that control gene behaviour haven’t been known,” says Dr Schmeier. “Using a technology developed by RIKEN in Japan called Cap Analysis of Gene Expression, we have finally been able to find all these regions.”

This work, which has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature, will allow researchers to develop a much better understanding of how cell types differ.

The work will also help in the fight against diseases. “Many human diseases result from genes being inappropriately turned on or turned off,” says Dr Schmeier. “Identifying the regions that control these decisions will allow us to understand why this happens.”

Dr Schmeier worked with 250 researchers from over one hundred different institutes across the world on the project.

“My contribution was computational analysis of the data,” says Dr Schmeier. “Analysing huge datasets like those produced by RIKEN is becoming a major area of biology, and Massey University’s Albany campus has developed a real strength in this area. The publication in Nature is another demonstration of this.”

Scientific coordinator of FANTOM5 Dr Alistair Forrest says: “We are complex multicellular organisms composed of at least 400 distinct cell types. This beautiful diversity of cell types allows us to see, think, hear, move and fight infection, yet they all have the same genes. The difference between all these cells is which genes they use – for instance, brain cells use different genes than liver cells, and therefore they work very differently.

“In FANTOM5, we have, for the first time, systematically investigated exactly what genes are used in virtually all cell types across the human body and the regions which determine where the genes are read.”

The FANTOM (functional annotation of the mammalian genome) project is a RIKEN initiative launched in 2000 originally to build a complete gene catalogue with cDNA technologies.

FANTOM5 is the fifth stage of the project, and provides the first holistic view of the control of gene activity for the majority of cell types that make up a human. To do this, the RIKEN organisers recruited a multidisciplinary network of experts in cell biology and computational biology.

For more information on the project, go to


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