Form and function
Just how much structure—and changes in structure—determines cellular action, however, remains unclear. "I think few people doubt whether, in some sense, this form-function connection exists," says William Noble, a geneticist and computer scientist at the University of Washington, who helped to create a 3-D map of a yeast genome last year. "The questions, though, are precisely how the two are related and in what direction the causality flows."
Figuring out whether form follows function—or vice-versa—will help answer some other big questions, such as whether "defects in genome architecture lead to disease" and whether environmental or developmental cues can prompt a genome "to change its architecture to achieve corresponding genomic functions," notes Zhijun Duan, of Washington's Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, and a co-author of the 2010 yeast genome paper.
Aiden and his colleagues are currently working to improve the resolution of the maps and to speed up the sequencing in hopes of answering some of these questions. Noble, however, remains skeptical that Aiden's approach can ever "hope to give us detailed insights into, for example, individual interactions that mediate specific gene regulatory events," he says. "For that, we must await new technologies."
We might not have to wait too long, however. As Duan notes, "the field has attracted enormous efforts of investigation and is advancing very quickly."
Video animation courtesy of Leon Furchtgott/Ashok Cutkosky/Erez Lieberman Aiden