THIS year marks the 50th anniversary
of the discovery of DNA by researchers James Watson and Francis
Crick. It seems historically fitting, then, that the complete sequence
of all 23 human chromosomes was published earlier this year, thereby
fulfilling the ultimate goal of the Human Genome Project, the most
ambitious research effort in the history of the life sciences.
scientists at Lawrence Livermore have played a prominent role in
the Human Genome Project through their study of chromosome 19. Over
the past two decades, dozens of Livermore researchers have discovered
important new information about the 1,400 genes belonging to this
chromosome. They determined the location of hundreds of genes (a
process called mapping) on chromosome 19, discovered the function
of many of its genes, and began the enormous task of sequencing
the chromosome, that is, determining the exact order of its DNA
base pairs. Later, they participated in the complete sequencing
effort as part of the Department of Energys Joint Genome Institute
(JGI) in Walnut Creek, California.
the sequencing of chromosome 19 complete, Livermore scientists are
helping to shape a new era in which the function of all genes and
the proteins they produce are understood and medical professionals
will be able to diagnose, treat, and perhaps cure the approximately
5,000 known hereditary diseases. To accomplish these ambitious goals,
the researchers are comparing the human genome to that of other
organisms such as the mouse, rat, chicken, and pufferfish. They
are also studying the complex mechanisms that govern how some genes
regulate the actions of others. Finally, they are building new computer
tools to help make sense of the human genome.
Every cell in the human body (except red
blood cells) contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. (a) Each chromosome
is made up of a tightly coiled strand of DNA. (b) DNA’s
uncoiled state reveals its familiar double helix shape. If
DNA is pictured as a twisted ladder, its sides, made of sugar
and phosphate molecules, are connected by (c) rungs made of
chemicals called bases. DNA has four bases—adenine,
thymine, guanine, and cytosine—that form interlocking
pairs. The order of the bases along the length of the ladder
is the DNA sequence.
Draft Sequence in 2001
barely two years ago, in April 2001, that DOE announced the draft
decoding of chromosomes 5, 16, and 19 by JGI. Livermore biomedical
scientist Lisa Stubbs notes that the historic milestone was only
a first step because the draft sequence contained gaps and errors.
Nevertheless, because the draft covered 90 percent of the human
genome, it allowed scientists to identify thousands of genes, some
of them responsible for inherited diseases.
final sequencing steps, done at 20 genome centers worldwide, filled
most of the gaps in the sequence and increased the overall accuracy
to 99.99 percent, or one error per 10,000 bases. Its
really good to have the sequencing finished, says Stubbs.
She says the final sequencing steps performed at JGI and Stanford
University show that the draft sequence pretty much got it
chromosomes are numbered according to their length, with chromosome
1 being the longest. Chromosome 19 is one of the smallest and, with
about 65 million bases, most gene-dense of the human chromosomes.
It is home to the genes that are linked to lymphoid leukemia, myotonic
dystrophy, diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis, and a susceptibility
to polio along with dozens of other heritable conditions.
chromosome 19 research was a natural outgrowth of the work in its
biomedical department, which was chartered in 1963 to study the
radiation dose to humans from isotopes in the environment. Radiation
was known to cause damage in chromosomes, and scientists believed
that a useful way to learn about the effects of radiation and other
environmental toxins was to study DNA directly. (See S&TR,
2002, Biological Research Evolves at Livermore.)
Dozens of genes associated with heritable
diseases are located on chromosome 19.
Early Start on Chromosome 19
researchers chose chromosome 19 to study because, of all 23 human
chromosomes, it has the highest concentration of guaninecytosine
base pairs, long thought to imply a higher concentration of genes.
That hunch proved to be correct. The density of genes on chromosome
19 is one of the highest of all chromosomes, says Livermore
biomedical scientist Laurie Gordon.
early Livermore research project examined three genes on chromosome
19 that are involved in the repair of DNA damaged by radiation and
environmental pollutants. DNA repair genes produce proteins that
cruise the length of DNA, removing unwanted proteins
and looking for any mistakes that might disrupt the smooth functioning
of a cell. These repair gene studies, which still continue, may
lead to insights about the development of cancers, many of which
are caused by defects in DNA repair pathways. Another Livermore
project studied a family of about 60 genes on chromosome 19 involved
in detoxifying and excreting chemicals foreign to the human body.
research on chromosome 19 accelerated when, in 1986, DOE launched
a major initiative to completely decipher the human genetic code.
Soon, Livermore researchers were studying all of chromosome 19,
with Lawrence Berkeley researchers focusing on chromosome 5 and
Los Alamos scientists on chromosome 16. In 1990, DOE joined the
National Institutes of Health to launch the U.S. portion of the
Human Genome Project with the goal to discover all the human genes
and to determine the complete sequence of the genomes 3 billion
DNA base pairs. The project soon drew additional collaborators worldwide.
scientist Linda Ashworth worked on chromosome 19 for 14 years before
retiring in 2001. When I first got involved in the mid-1980s,
genome science was a very small field, she recalls. Ashworth,
Anne Olsen, and others started mapping chromosome 19 in the mid-1980s
to understand the location of hundreds of genes that were then known
to reside on the chromosome and to prepare for the sequencing effort
that lay ahead.
have revolutionized many formerly labor-intensive activities
at the Joint Genome Institute. A robot selects bacterial colonies
with large amounts of cloned human DNA and transfers to machines
that will sequence the DNA. (b) These high-speed DNA sequencers
at the Joint Genome Institute can sequence 2 billion base pairs
Mapping Effort Not Easy
tedious process, which Ashworth describes as putting Humpty-Dumpty
together again, involved breaking up thousands of chromosome
19 molecules into small pieces of the same size; producing exact
copies, called clones, of each piece with bacterial colonies; and
then fitting the pieces together in the correct order. The technique
was the only option available at the time because scientists were
(and still are) unable to sequence an entire chromosome from end
to end. Our goal was to create a high-resolution sequence-ready
map, says Olsen, who also retired recently.
says that chromosome 19 was not easy to map. It contains a large
number of repetitive sequences that are interspersed throughout
its DNA. Another factor, which complicated accurate sequencing later
on, is that the chromosome is more tightly bonded than other chromosomes
because of its high instances of guaninecytosine bonds. As
a result, a single strand of the double-stranded molecule can loop
back on itself to form confusing secondary structures.
the mapping effort, Livermore researchers tapped the latest tools
and techniques in the fledgling biomedical industry, such as automated
pipettes, and invented a few of their own. One important technique,
developed at the Laboratory to locate short pieces of DNA and establish
their relative position on an individual chromosome, is called fluorescence
in situ hybridization (FISH). Researchers improved the resolution
of FISH by using hamster eggs fused with individual human sperm,
which caused the sperm DNA to extend in length. This extension allowed
investigators to see the molecule in much greater detail than was
The Joint Genome Institute:
From Virtual Facility
to Gene Research Powerhouse
Located in Walnut
Creek, California, the Department of Energys Joint
Genome Institute (JGI) is one of the largest publicly
funded genome sequencing centers in the world. The institute
was founded as a virtual entity on January 1, 1997,
as a collaboration between Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence
Berkeley, and Los Alamos national laboratories. Livermore
scientists initially mapped and began to sequence chromosome
19, while Los Alamos scientists worked on chromosome
16, and Lawrence Berkeley worked on chromosome 5 before
joining forces through the JGI. (See S&TR,
2000, The Joint Genome Institute: Decoding the Human
main work of the JGI is done at its 5,600-square-meter
Production Genomic Facility (PGF). Secretary of Energy
Bill Richardson was keynote speaker at the April 19,
1999, formal PGF dedication. Its staff of about 150
includes 40 Lawrence Livermore researchers.
PGF uses an automated process during which the samples
pass through capillaries as a laser scans them. After
DNA bases are read, computers reassemble the overlapping
fragments into long, continuous stretches of sequenced
DNA, which are analyzed for errors, gene-coding regions,
and other characteristics. This process is repeated
many times for all of the sections of DNA that make
up a genome. The front end of the operation, where the
pieces of DNA are cut, involves the most skilled handwork.
Virtually all other facets of the process have been
Livermore biomedical scientist Elbert Branscomb served
as JGIs first director. Edward Rubin, an internationally
geneticist and medical researcher, was named the current
director in January 2003. Funding is provided mainly
by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research
in DOEs Office of Science, with additional funding
from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, and other agencies.
initial goal was completing the DNA sequencing of chromosomes
5, 16, and 19, which together constitute 11 percent
of the human genome. In April 2001, JGI announced the
completion of the draft of JGIs three chromosomes.
JGI was the first large genome center to make such an
announcement, several months ahead of schedule.
completing the final sequencing, JGI researchers sent
their data to a team at Stanford University for finishing,
that is, closing the gaps and resolving any discrepancies
in the draft sequence. To be considered finished, the
sequence must be completely contiguous, be confirmed
by at least two templates, have no gaps, and have a
final estimated error rate of less than 1 out of 10,000
center has taken advantage of innovations and breakthroughs
in the bioresearch field, which have resulted in remarkable
increases in the amount of DNA that is sequenced. Since
1999, the JGI has increased its production rates more
than 20-fold to sequencing about 35 million bases per
is in the process of becoming a more research-oriented
facility. It has established whole genome sequencing
programs that include vertebrates, fungi, plants, and
late 1980s, armed with their map of known genes along the chromosome,
Livermore scientists started sequencing the 65 million base pairs
of chromosome 19. Ashworth recalls, When we started sequencing,
it took about 14 hours to sequence 400 bases, but that was considered
state of the art.
mapping efforts continued, other Livermore researchers discovered
more about the location and function of chromosome 19s genes.
In 1992, Livermore researchers, collaborating with colleagues in
Canada and Europe, discovered the genetic defect that causes myotonic
dystrophy, the most common form of muscular dystrophy.
the Joint Genome Institute was established in 1997 as a collaboration
between Livermore, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories,
Livermore researchers sequenced 200 million raw base pairs in one
yearthat is, they gave the DNA its first rough reading. JGI
can currently complete 200 million raw bases in less than 3 days.
JGIs production facility in full swing by mid-1999, sequencing
took on an industrial character by centralizing and largely automating
the effort that was being done individually at the three laboratories.
JGI personnel, including a team led by biomedical scientist Susan
Lucas, worked to complete the sequencing of chromosomes 5, 16, and
transferred the final sequencing work to a group at Stanford University
for what is known as finishing. This process improves accuracy and
closes small gaps in the known sequence. Stubbs notes that because
the human genome will be used as a reference for all scientists,
it is essential that it be as accurate as possible.
A pioneering study led by Livermore researchers
showed the high degree of similarity between the mouse and
Entering a New Era
the final decoding of the human genome, scientists are entering
the postgenomic era. The new focus, says Stubbs, is on understanding
the function, regulation, and evolution of genes. After a gene is
precisely located on a chromosome and sequenced, researchers can
easily predict the primary structure of the protein that the gene
encodes. But in only a few cases do scientists have an idea what
that protein does. Sometimes basic function can be deduced by similarity
to other known proteins. For example, protein structure may suggest
a role in detoxification or as a structural component.
know what only a handful of genes are doing in the organism,
says Stubbs. In most cases genes are like black boxes. What
kinds of toxins do they metabolize? In which cells, and when do
the cells require them? A small number of genes do not encode proteins
at all but are suspected of producing RNA products that help regulate
says that scientists also need to explore the largely uncharted
noncoding region, sometimes called junk DNA, which makes up about
95 percent of human DNA. Although junk DNA looks like nonsense coding,
it may have regulatory functions, or it might be necessary for the
structural integrity of the DNA double helix. Gordon believes that
junk DNA may yield surprising functions. Curiously, yeast and bacteria
do not have junk DNA.
scientists like Stubbs and Gordon are interested in how genes are
regulated. Two genes may have almost identical sequences, yet one
may be active only in skin and the other only in bones. What determines
the tissue-specific activity are DNA elements linked to the genes.
These so-called regulatory elements serve as docking sites for proteins
that determine the onoff state of every gene.
Understanding gene regulation is important to a broad range of applications,
ranging from human susceptibility to disease to managing microbes
in the environment.
researchers have discovered possible regulatory sequences for genes
throughout chromosome 19. The complexity involved in gene
regulation becomes exponential the more we look into it. says
Gordon. The cascade of reactions is fascinating.
In 2001, the JGI led a consortium that sequenced
(a) the Japanese pufferfish, Fugu rubripes, and (b)
the sea squirt, Ciona intestinalis. The pufferfish
is the first vertebrate genome after human to be draft sequenced.
The sea squirt is a primitive chordate and has a small genome.
further understanding of the human genome, many scientists are looking
to comparative genomics. This relatively new field analyzes and
compares the genetic material of different species to study evolution
and gene function. A key goal is to find the five percent of most
complex genomes that serve critical roles in cell development, maintenance,
genomics focuses on identifying DNA sequences that are shared between
two or more diverse species. These conserved elements (that is,
those that arent reinvented for each species) include genes
that produce key proteins and enzymes and the genes that establish
basic features of the organism such as body shape during development.
If you really want to discover the genes that are most critical
to basic life, you have to look at other genomes, says Stubbs.
scientists are discovering that humans share a surprising number
of genes with mice, fish, chickens, and even primitive bacteria.
A LivermoreJGI team led by Stubbs compared human chromosome
19 with similar sections of mouse DNA and detailed its findings
in the July 2001 issue of Science. The article, the first
major example of the power of large-scale genomic comparisons, described
clues to the mechanisms of gene evolution in mammals. The research
was also helpful because the mouse is often used as a model for
studying diseases and testing medicines. (See S&TR, May
2001, The Human in the Mouse Mirror.)
researchers found that functional counterparts of about 90 percent
of the human genes in chromosome 19 are also located in similar
sections of mouse DNA. However, against this backdrop of amazingly
high similarity, they also found some significant differences. Most
of the differences are due to the active copying of certain genes
over 80 million years of evolution. Both rodents and primates have
copied genes from the earliest chordates (animals with backbones),
but not the same genes. As a result, rodents have multiple copies
of some genes that are found only once in human DNA, and vice versa.
genes will often specialize, with each copy taking on parts of the
original genes function, says Stubbs. For example,
one copy may take over duties in the liver, while the other one
specializes for work in the brain. This specialization is a way
to build more complexity over time. As the genes mutate and additional
duplications take place, completely new functions may arise. Gene
duplication is therefore a major source of genetic variation, the
critical fodder for evolution.
group of genes that has duplicated especially frequently is called
zinc finger genes, which produce proteins that bind to elements
allowing them to regulate the activity levels of other genes. A
significant fraction of the roughly 800 human zinc finger genes
are found on chromosome 19.
Livermore researchers have begun analyzing
the chicken genome and comparing it to
the human genome because the chicken sits on the evolutionary
tree between the mouse and
Gaining Insight with Pufferfish
says that scientists need to look at genomes of organisms farther
away evolutionarily from humans to gain further insight into the
human genome. In early 2001, JGI led a consortium that sequenced
the Japanese pufferfish, Fugu rubripes. It was the first vertebrate
genome to be sequenced after the human genome. The pufferfish genome
is known as the Readers Digest version of the human
genome because it is one-eighth the size. Nevertheless, it contains
a gene set that is highly similar to the human genome, and its sequence
is helping scientists to further identify regulatory genes in humans.
in 2001, JGI sequenced the genome of the sea squirt, Ciona intestinalis.
This organism, a primitive chordate, has a small genome (165 billion
base pairs) and therefore holds important information about how
genes evolved over time.
Gordon, and other Livermore researchers have begun analyzing portions
of the chicken genome and comparing it to the human genome. They
chose the chicken because it sits on the evolutionary tree between
the mouse and the pufferfish. Gordon points out that Livermore researchers
do not work among chicken coops. Instead, they use chicken genes
that are available as clones produced by bacterial colonies. The
chicken study, as with the mouse effort, largely involves complex
computational analyses of the different genomes.
computational genomics has become essential. These powerful computer
tools allow users to ask complex questions and extract meaningful
answers rapidly from massive amounts of genome data. Some of the
tools have been developed by Livermore researchers such as bioinformaticist
Paramvir Dehal, who is helping to compare different species
DNA, and computer scientist Art Kobayashi, who is developing new
ways to analyze larger pieces of sequenced DNA than is now possible.
map (top) of a 40-kilobase (kb) region of human chromosome 19
containing the tropomysin 4 (TPM4) gene. Nucleotide positions
1 to 40,000 are represented by the horizontal axis of each panel.
The seven segments, or exons, of the gene sequence are shown
by boxes joined by a blue line. The four panels below the TPM4
sequence summarize the results of aligning this human sequence
with similar regions of the genome of the mouse, rat, chicken,
and pufferfish. Wherever matches greater than 50-percent identity
are found between the human and other sequences, a dot is plotted
in each panel at a height that corresponds to the percentage.
A series of clustered dots may coalesce into a larger, evolutionarily
conserved region (ECR). Blue ECRs correspond to gene exons;
red ECRs correspond to nongene regions. The nongene regions
are likely to represent regulatory sequences that control gene
expression. TPM4 is well conserved between human and mouse,
rat, birds, and fish. The figure is taken from the ECR browser
designed by collaborator Ivan Ovcharenko of Lawrence Berkeley
new projects to better understand the human genome are just beginning.
Gordon says that its quite likely that more human genes will
be discovered and their functions elucidated. We have years
and years of work ahead of us, she says. Increasingly, that
work is done as collaborative efforts with other institutions.
notes that another large task is understanding the many variations
among genes. Every human has a slightly different genome than everyone
else. Just as certain genes determine the blood types A, B, AB,
and O, other genes are responsible for proteins that are slightly
different from each other.
says Stubbs, selecting chromosome 19 was an excellent choice for
Livermore bioresearchers. It is small, therefore manageable, and
twice as gene-dense as many other chromosomes. Working on the chromosome
led to Livermores present stature as a world leader in genomics,
bioinformatics, and comparative genomics, and to its full participation
in JGI. Knowledge about chromosome 19 and other chromosomes will
speed the understanding of how genes influence disease development,
contribute to the discovery of new treatments, illuminate how species
evolved, and help scientists form a molecular understanding of life.
researchers, even those who have retired, still have strong feelings
about chromosome 19. Those of us who have worked with chromosome
19 for so many years have an emotional attachment to it, says
Key Words: chromosome 19, comparative genomics, DNA, gene mapping,
gene sequencing, Human Genome Project, Joint Genome Institute (JGI),
pufferfish, regulatory genomics, sea squirt.
For further information contact Lisa Stubbs (925) 422-8473 (email@example.com).
a printer-friendly version of this article.