A genetic "cheat code" that activates dormant DNA

Scientists have found a gene that can 'lock' and 'unlock' certain sections of your genetic code, allowing other genes to be expressed in your body. If you are under enough stress, this gene springs into action.

So you think you have access to all your DNA just by being born? Think again. You have to earn it, people. You have to work to get there. You have to suffer. Epigeneticists have proved this to be so, but they also might have a cheat code.

Although all the DNA you need (and more) is already in your body, not all of it is accessible. Rather than stretching out in a long, elegant line, much of anyone's genetic code is tangled up into packed globs, like strings of Christmas tree lights. Just like the lights, the tighter-packed the glob, the harder it is to unravel it. If they're packed solid enough, some of the body's genetic sequences are simply shut off from any of the mechanisms that would translate them into actual flesh. They can't be expressed.

When the body is 'stressed,' as scientists euphemistically put it, these bundles sometimes come unpacked. They de-tangle themselves, and make themselves available. Recently, scientists discovered a gene in yeast, activation transcription factor-2 or ATF-2, that is necessary for those bundles to form. When studied in fruit flies, ATF-2 caused the formation of these unaccessible packets of genes. When environmental stresses were placed on the fruit flies, their ATF-2 was modified, and the bundles came loose, unlocking these new genes and letting them be expressed. What's more, these ATF-2 modifications were carried on for the next few generations.

This new access is not necessarily good. It's possible that these new genes, designed for use in particularly difficult situations, might be detrimental in everyday life. They may play a role in family legacies of schizophrenia, heart disease, and diabetes. There is some good news in this news, though. There are already drugs that take out the enzymes which modify ATF-2. Use of those drugs might be able to not only minimize damage in people with these diseases, but in subsequent generations as well.

Read the full scientific article via Cell.