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Scientists zoom in to watch DNA code being read

Copyright free (Pixabay/Creative Commons CC0)

Incredible images of how the DNA code is read and interpreted have been unveiled by scientists - revealing for the first time new detail about one of the fundamental processes of life.

This DNA reading and decoding mechanism is common to all animals and plants, but is often hijacked by cancer.

But researchers, funded by BBSRC, Cancer Research UK, and the Wellcome Trust, and based at the Institute for Cancer Research, have been able to zoom-in and capture almost one million images of the reading mechanism.

Now, armed with an advanced form of electron-microscopy known as Cryo-EM, scientists are able to see what is happening in this process in greater detail than ever before. The discovery of exactly how this molecular mechanism works - published in the journal Nature - could open up new approaches to cancer treatment.

Universities and Science Minister Sam Gyimah said: “This incredible new advancement in DNA decoding will further our understanding of disease, potentially leading to vital lifesaving treatment, including new ways to tackle cancer.”

The Minister continued: “The recently published Life Sciences Sector Deal, through our Industrial Strategy, will pave the way for more investment in innovative new treatments and technologies that will not only improve patient lives, but also drive economic growth making Britain fit for the future.”

Cryo-EM is an advanced form of electron-microscopy that involves freezing and imaging samples at -180°C to preserve minute details of protein shapes. It is so powerful that it can take pictures of tiny molecules - approximately 5 nanometers or 20000th of the width of a human hair - at almost an atomic level.

Using this type of microscopy is an emerging and exciting approach in cancer drug design, and has enabled scientists to do something that no scientist has done before.

Dr Amanda Collis, interim Executive Director of Science at BBSRC, said: “Cryo-EM is rapidly advancing our knowledge of the structure and behaviour of biological molecules, and this exciting discovery demonstrates how fundamental understanding of biological systems can open the door to the development of potential new cancer therapies.” 

Dr Alessandro Vannini, Team Leader in Structural Biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “Now we know how the components of this crucial molecular mechanism fit together, we may be able to design drugs that turn the system on or off - and these could offer a whole new way of treating cancer.”



BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
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Tags: human health The Institute of Cancer Research research technology BBSRC press release