At one point in our lives, we’ve all dreamt of being a superhero. Every time you’ve come across a spider, the thought of it having radioactive effects and accidentally biting you has crossed your mind at least once. Or, if you’re more scientifically logical, you’ve thought of creating your own Super Soldier Serum to help you gain super strength.
Well, guess what? You might not be completely wrong. One such popular superhero character of recent times is Marvel’s Ant-Man.
In the movie, a scientist invents a gadget with the help of which human cells can be genetically modified to shrink to the size of an ant. What if I were to tell you that it may actually be possible in real life? Except, in this case, you will turn into a mosquito instead of an ant!
At the University of Amsterdam, Claire Hoencamp, a doctoral candidate in cancer biology, found this interesting fact about the human chromosome. While studying with Condensin II, a protein involved in cell growth, she decided to experiment by destroying this protein and observing the effects on human cells.
What she noticed was far more interesting than she had imagined it to be. The destruction of this protein caused the human chromosomes to unfold from their usual forms. However, when they started refolding, instead of following the natural choreography of human DNA, it morphed into its best impression of the innards of a mosquito nucleus.
Now, the differences between human and mosquito DNA aren’t limited to the arrangement of letters in the genetic code. “In the human nucleus, the chromosomes are bunched into tidy packages,” Hoencamp explained in a video call to LIVE SCIENCE. “But in the mosquito nucleus, the chromosomes are folded in the middle.” After various attempts, researchers have successfully figured out how to fold one type of DNA to take the shape of the other. Does that mean it is possible to modify a human’s DNA into a mosquito’s DNA?
But wait! You might not even need a scientist for this. It may even occur naturally! At least that is what Olga Dudchenko, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Genome Architecture at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, claims to have found.
Dudchenko is a co-director of a multi-institutional project called DNA Zoo, for which she was studying the 3D structure of chromosomes to classify genomes. According to her research, we can organize this into two basic architectures.
First, the tightly coiled & compartmentalized nature of the human genome, and second, the looser arrangement of the mosquito genome. Even after examining multiple species, her results concluded that all chromosomes take on variations of two basic shapes. Confoundingly, her research suggested that using one shape, some lineages would evolve into the second but then, in many cases, evolve back. However, it is still unknown if there is any force driving this change.
During a conference in Austria, the two teams came across each other’s findings and realized that they were approaching the same problem from different angles. Hoencamp’s research had led to the finding of a protein that folds chromosomes. Dudchenko had spotted Hoencamp’s experiment happening naturally across evolutionary timescales.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the two researchers have yet to collaborate on their findings. Their future research will further examine the evolutionary advantage one nucleus structure might have over the other.
While examining genes, the researchers found that the folding structure of chromosomes only mildly affects its expression. It is still unclear why a species tends to fold its DNA one way or another, considering this does not heavily affect gene expression.
Nevertheless, the subtle effects of each folding might have significant implications as both folding methods are found across the evolutionary tree. However, it is yet a mystery as to what exactly is being changed.
Who knows, maybe after researchers uncover the details, Ant-man or Mosquito-man might not just be a fictional character anymore!
Kazi Tanha Annoor
Department of Mathematics and Natural Science