DNA origami in Type 2 diabetes – by Antje Grotz

Antje Grotz, diabetes PhD student

As a scientist who spends most of the time in the lab, I don’t get many opportunities to talk to school students or non-scientists about what we do and how everyone might benefit from it. This summer, however, was an exception.

We were chosen to be part of the Summer Science Exhibition in London (an annual science festival hosted by the Royal Society). This free exhibition showcases exciting science that is happening all across the UK, from gravitational waves to tropical crows, storing sunlight and analysing your voice.

DNA folding in Type 2

With our exhibit, we wanted to tell people about DNA folding – how your genetic material, or DNA, is packaged into the cells that make up your body. Your DNA consists of an individual code based on four letters (A, C, G, and T) and decides features like the colour of your eyes or hair.

Demonstrating DNA folding at the exhibition

Each cell in your body has two meters of DNA packed inside it. The DNA is folded into a structure thinner than the width of a human hair. And it’s very important to fold it correctly, not only to make sure it fits, but also to make sure it works properly.

This folding process is not random and we can look at how mistakes in DNA folding can lead to different medical conditions, including Type 2 diabetes.

To understand this, we use special software to look at DNA in 3D. A team of researchers, from biologists to computer scientists, worked together to develop this software. It allows us to actually see how the DNA folding differs between different types of cells and in some health conditions.

Type 2 diabetes is a very complex condition and your risk is influenced by different factors including your lifestyle, age, ethnicity and also your DNA. By looking at the folding of the DNA in Type 2 diabetes, we hope to learn more about what goes wrong when this condition develops.

Specific regions in your DNA, called genes, give instructions to make proteins or building blocks that are essential for your body. These genes have to be switched on and off to make the right protein at the right time. DNA folding controls which genes are switched on and when that happens.

If the DNA folding is not working properly, the wrong genes might get switch on. This is exactly what happens with some of the genes that may change your risk of Type 2 diabetes.

We are still in the early days of our research and it’ll take a while until our results can be put into practice, but it’s an exciting time for Type 2 diabetes research! By understanding more about DNA folding we can develop new and better ways to treat Type 2 diabetes, or prevent it in people who are at high risk of Type 2.

So what’s a good way to show how DNA folding works?

Getting hands on with DNA origami

At the Summer Science Exhibition, we used virtual reality software (‘Step into a genome’) to look at DNA folding. People could also use interactive touch screens to manipulate folded DNA and hands-on games to explore the effects of folding on cell function. For children, we had take-home activity packs with many DNA related games, from DNA colouring to extracting DNA from strawberries.

All our visitors were amazed that it’s not just the DNA sequence, but also the folding which is important. I had a lot of fun explaining my daily work in the lab and I can’t recommend enough getting involved in events like this.

If you have never been to a science festival before, you should definitely find out if there is one near you and use this opportunity to learn something new, and have fun at the same time.

Antje Grotz is a PhD student in Professor Anna Gloyn’s Lab, which is based at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology & Metabolism and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics (University of Oxford). Their work on the genetics of Type 2 diabetes is funded by the Wellcome Trust and Diabetes UK. The Exhibition ‘DNA Origami’ at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition was organised by the University of Oxford and Goldsmiths University of London.

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