Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have been awarded more than £40million for work which will include research into the lesser-known areas of DNA.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) has awarded £46.3 million to the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Human Genetics Unit.
The scientists said their work could ultimately help people living with genetic diseases and cancer.
The work will include research on the 98% of DNA that is underexplored.
The five-year funding will support research into the ‘dark genome’ – which was previously called ‘junk’ DNA.
It is hoped that this work could help provide new insights into complex genetic diseases.
Since the human genome was first sequenced in 2003, research has mainly focused on the parts of DNA that contain instructions for making proteins – the fundamental building blocks of all organisms.
However, these represent only 2% of the three billion letters that make up the human genome.
The remaining 98% of human DNA became known as dark matter, or dark genome, which had no obvious meaning or purpose.
At first, some geneticists thought the dark genome was just junk DNA – the remnants of broken genes that were no longer relevant.
However, others thought the dark genome was crucial to understanding humanity, as it seemed unlikely that human DNA retained so many useless genes for no reason.
The scientists said there must be an evolutionary reason for maintaining the size of the genome.
The main function of the dark genome is thought to be to regulate the decoding process, or expression, of protein-producing genes.
This helps control the behavior of genes in response to all the environmental pressures that human bodies face throughout their lives.
These pressures include diet, stress, pollution, exercise and sleep.
This is known as epigenetics – the study of how an individual’s behavior and environment can cause changes that affect the functioning of their genes.
Your epigenetics change with age and in response to where and how you live.
Epigenetics does not modify the DNA code, but it can control access to genes and is increasingly considered to play an important role in the development of cancer.
The MRC funding, which represents a significant investment in genomics research in the UK, will allow scientists at the University of Edinburgh to focus more on these lesser-known parts of DNA.
They will use collaborative research and new techniques to develop a better understanding of genetic diseases.
Professor Wendy Bickmore, Director of the MRC’s Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, said: “It’s exciting that we now have so much human genome sequence data, but we need to turn this data into knowledge about how our genome works in health and disease.
“This new funding will allow us to meet this challenge together, harnessing experimental and computational expertise to better understand, manage and treat disease and ultimately improve the lives of people with genetic diseases and cancers.