A Very Different Pair of Genes

Jun 9, 2021

Thirty years after scientists began mapping human genome, we’re all familiar with the idea that our genes account for many of our physical characteristics.

Now, scientists at Virginia Tech have identified a new kind of gene, that plays a powerful role in when we sleep and when we don’t.

The Kojima lab deciphers genetic codes of biological rhythms to understand how the molecular machinery controls circadian biochemistry, physiology and ultimately behavior. This research integrates neuroscience, molecular/cellular biology, genomics, bioinformatics and computational biology.

It’s actually a very different pair of genes than previously thought.  Instead of the traditional explanation that genes determine our basic traits, Virginia Tech researchers found that it’s a kind of shadow gene that’s really running the show when it comes to sleep and wakefulness.

“So, we found this gene thinking, this is a typical gene, like genes for your hair, color, eye color, and then it turned out, this is not one of those typical genes,” sayss Shihoko Kojima. 

Kojima is assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and it’s her lab that’s newly identified something they call a nontraditional gene-- molecules scientists used to think of as junk DNA. And they found these nontraditional genes actually do a lot of heavy lifting, supporting immune and brain function, playing a role in cancer and other diseases, and governing our patterns of sleep and wakefulness. 



 

And she says, there’s a lot more yet to be learned about how non-coding genes, or shadow genes, work in the human body.  “So, I think we should focus more on those non-traditional genes that we have neglected because that might have a lot of treasures that we haven't even thought of.”

And that opens up a whole new area of potential study, not only of sleep and wakefulness, but also about what else might be hidden in those shadow genes.

The new study on shadow genes is published in the journal Genes & Development

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech