Dark Matter of the Genome, Pt. 1 (Base Pairs Episode 8)

Most of the genome is not genes, but another form of genetic information that has come to be known as the genome’s “dark matter.” In this episode, we explore how studying this unfamiliar territory could help scientists understand diseases such as ALS.

Could “genome” be a misnomer? The name implies that our genetic information is mainly genes, yet when the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, it revealed that genes comprise a tiny minority. About 98 percent of the genome is something else—a kind of genomic dark matter.

We’re kicking off the second season of Base Pairs with a two-part series in which we explore this genomic dark matter. We start by talking with an astrophysicist-turned-genome-biologist, Assistant Professor Molly Hammell, about how the revelation that the genome is mostly not made of genes is similar to astrophysicists’ discovery that the universe is mostly not made of ordinary matter, and how she ended up studying a type of genomic dark matter called transposons. While they are not genes, transposons may play a role in a number of human diseases, including ALS, a focus of Hammell’s research. We also dig into the archives to hear from Barbara McClintock, the pioneering CSHL scientist who discovered transposons while studying corn way back in 1944.

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Extras for Episode 8:

These corn specimens helped Barbara McClintock make her Nobel Prize-winning discovery of transposons. They are now kept in CSHL’s library.

After her mother was diagnosed with ALS, Lisa Krug decided to devote her Ph.D. work at the Watson School of Biological Sciences to studies of this disease. She worked closely with Molly Hammell, who we hear from in this episode, to better understand how transposon activity might contribute to ALS. She wrote about her experiences with ALS, in the lab and at home, for LabDish last summer.

Molly Hammell participated in a huge group “Ice Bucket Challenge” (she’s somewhere in the “E”) held by ALS Ride for Life, an inspiring organization started by an ALS patient who travels for miles in his motorized wheelchair to raise funds for research. Some of those funds have gone toward supporting the research in Hammell’s lab.

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