A new technology for studying the human body’s vast system for toggling genes on and off reveals that genes connected with the immune system switch on and off more frequently than other genes, and those same genes operate differently in women and men. What’s more, the differences in gene activity are mostly not genetic.
A couple of years ago, geneticists Howard Chang, MD, PhD; Will Greenleaf, PhD, and others at Stanford invented a way to map the epigenome – essentially the real time on/off status of each of the 22,000 genes in our cells, along with the switches that control whether each gene is on or off.
Imagine a fancy office vending machine that can dispense 22,000 different drinks and other food items. Some selections are forever pumping out product; other choices are semi permanently unavailable. Still others dispense espresso, a double espresso or hot tea depending on which buttons you push. The activity of the 22,000 genes that make up our genomes are regulated in much the same way.
That’s a lot to keep track of. But Chang and Greenleaf’s technology, called ATAC-seq, makes it almost easy to map all that gene activity in living people as they go about their lives. Their latest study, published in Cell Systems, showed that the genes that switch on and off differently from person to person are more likely to be associated with autoimmune diseases, and also that men and women use different switches for many immune system genes. That sex-based difference in activity might explain the much higher incidence of autoimmune diseases in women — diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The team took ordinary blood samples from 12 healthy volunteers and extracted immune cells called T cells. T cells are easy to isolate from a standard blood test and an important component of the immune system. With T cells in hand, the team looked at how certain genes are switched on and off, and how that pattern varied from individual to individual. Chang’s team also looked at how much change occurred from one blood draw to the next in each volunteer.
Chang told me, “We were interested in exploring the landscape of gene regulation directly from live people and look at differences. We asked, ‘How different or similar are people?’ This is different from asking if they have the same genes.”
Even in identical twins, he said, one twin could have an autoimmune disease and the other could be perfectly well. And, indeed, the team reported that over a third of the variation in gene activity was not connected to a genetic difference, suggesting a strong role for the environment. “I would say the majority of the difference is likely from a nongenetic source,” he said.
Previously: Caught in the act! Fast, cheap, high-resolution, easy way to tell which genes a cell is using
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