Decoding the Dark Matter of the Human Genome

In 1994, researchers from Harvard and Stanford published a paper in which they described three mice: one was yellow and fat, one mottled and fat, and the last one was brown and lean. An ordinary image, except for one thing: despite being so different, all three mice were genetically identical.

If their genes were exactly the same, what was causing such striking differences in the mice?

Three genetically identical mice that do not look the same. Why?
Photo credit: Nature Publishing, used with permission

At the time, Karissa Sanbonmatsu–staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory–was working on plasma physics, and she had no idea that one day she would tap into this mystery. Even though she started from a completely different field, from the very beginning she was obsessed by one question: What distinguishes life from matter?

“In order to answer that question, the first place to look is the ribosome,” Karissa explains. “It’s the oldest molecule found in life.”

And for a reason: all living cells are made of proteins, and ribosomes are the “factory” inside the cell where these proteins are made.

The breakthrough came in 2003, when the Q Machine, at the time the second fastest supercomputer in the world, was built at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Using the Q Machine, Karissa and colleagues were able to run the largest simulation ever performed until then in biology, allowing them to be the first team to publish an atomic structure of a ribosome in 2004.

This milestone set the foundation for a deeper understanding of the ribosome. Possible future applications, for example, include making new cancer therapies based on how ribosomes differentiate in healthy versus cancerous tissue.

In the meantime, a new, emerging field had been revolutionizing the —> Read More