The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places

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The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places
Ben Sklar for The New York Times

HUNTER Edward M. Marcotte and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin have found hundreds of genes involved in human disorders.
By CARL ZIMMER
Published: April 26, 2010

Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now theyre hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

EMBRYONIC In their quest for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, scientists use glass needles to fertilize frog embryos with genes from yeast that also make proteins found in developing human blood vessels.

On the face of it, its just crazy, Dr. Marcotte said. After all, these single-cell fungi dont make blood vessels. They dont even make blood. In yeast, it turns out, these five genes work together on a completely unrelated task: fixing cell walls.

Crazier still, Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms. The researchers reported their results recently in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists took advantage of a peculiar feature of our evolutionary history. In our distant, amoeba-like ancestors, clusters of genes were already forming to work together on building cell walls and on other very basic tasks essential to life. Many of those genes still work together in those same clusters, over a billion years later, but on different tasks in different organisms.

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