May 06, 2010 — It’s sometimes difficult to assess the impact of a scientific paper when it is first published, but one that came out on the cover of Nature today has potential to equal the discovery of the genetic code.  The leading science journal reported the discovery of a second genetic code – the “code within the code” – that has just been cracked by molecular biologists and computer scientists.  Moreover, they used information technology – not evolutionary theory – to figure it out.

The new code is called the Splicing Code.  It lives embedded within the DNA.  It directs the primary genetic code, in very complex but now predictable ways, how and when to assemble genes and regulatory elements.  Cracking this code-within-a-code is helping elucidate several long-standing mysteries about genetics that emerged from the Human Genome Project: Why are there only 20,000 genes for an organism as complex as a human being? (Scientists had expected far more.)  Why are genes broken up into segments (called exons), separated by non-coding elements (called introns), and then spliced together after transcription?  And why are genes turned on in some cells and tissues, but not in others?  For two decades molecular biologists have been trying to figure out the mechanisms of genetic regulation.  This important paper represents a milestone in understanding what goes on.  It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it shows that an inner code exists – a communication system that can be deciphered so clearly, that the scientists could predict what the genome would do in certain situations with uncanny accuracy.

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