Researchers Believe So-called "Junk DNA" Could Play a Role in Diabetes
New research suggests that some non-coding DNA (often called "junk DNA") has an important regulatory function in the pancreas. Researchers at the Imperial College London have been studying junk DNA in an effort to better understand what the billions of non-coding DNA genes are for.
The international team at the Imperial College London published their findings in the journal Cell Metabolism, revealing that specific non-protein coding regions are apparently regulating key genes in beta cells. These are the key insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
Long regions of junk DNA are copied to RNA, the researchers found.
These regions carry instructions for making proteins, as was already known, but the ones that don't code proteins are instead fine-tuning gene activity. Their role in beta cells wasn't clear, but this latest research may be putting a finger on that.
Working with researchers in the US, Spain, Italy, France and Switzerland, the London team has found what these long non-coding RNAs do inside the cells. Their role is in regulating key controlling genes by causing the DNA to twist and kink.
The team quickly focused on one group of "junk" cells in particular: PLUTO (PDX1 Locus Upstream Transcript). PLUTO is right next to another controlling gene, PDX1, which helps beta cells mature. PLUTO changes how the DNA around it folds, creating structural changes that enhance PDX1's activity as a key controller for beta cells and thus insulin production. Further analysis found that PLUTO and (as a result) PDX1 are less active in those with Type 2 diabetes.