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Some 'Letters' in The DNA Alphabet Are Double Agents

| Dec 13, 2013 10:40 AM EST

Researchers found a second genetic code "hiding" in DNA that could help them better identify mutations that are liked to diseases and other conditions.

Researchers have thought genetic codes were only used to write information about proteins , but a recent study found they actually write a second "language" that dictates how genes are controlled,  a University of Washington news release reported.

It took researchers so long to uncover this second language because one is written on top of the other.

"For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made," University of Washington associate professor of genome sciences and of medicine, Doctor John Stamatoyannopoulos, said in the news release. "Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways."

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Genetic codes are made up of a 64 "letter" (codon) alphabet. Researchers were surprised to discover that that some of the codons had two meanings; the team dubbed them "duons." One of the duon's meanings deals with the protein sequence while the other is related to gene control.

The researchers believe these two functions evolved together. The instructions provided by the code may help "stabilize certain proteins and how they are made."

The discovery of duons could change how scientists interpret genetic information in the future and could help "open doors" to new treatments for all kinds of genetic conditions.

"The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously," Stamatoyannopoulos said.

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