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Story Highlights
  • Research found that 80 percent of human DNA plays a functional, important role
  • BYU undergrad student co-authors paper, part of worldwide ENCODE project
  • Thirty percent of BYU students report having a research experience, mentored by a professor, while an undergraduate

Scientists used to believe that 95 percent of our DNA was useless, termed “junk DNA.”

New evidence suggests their estimate was quite a bit off.

A new worldwide collaborative study that involved a Brigham Young University professor-student team found that 80 percent of human DNA plays a functional, important role.

“The implications reach far into gene therapy and alleviating genetic disorders,” said Elliot Winters, who worked on the research as a BYU exercise science undergraduate student.  

Winters worked side-by-side with BYU microbiology and molecular biology professor Steven Johnson. They spent four months analyzing DNA samples, exploring the function of DNA in the human genome. Their specific role was to digest cells with enzymes to isolate the DNA that associates with nucleosomes. They then sent the samples on to researchers at Stanford University.

“I taught Elliot the procedure for processing the samples, and then he really did all the work,” Johnson said. “He became the master of it.”

Being able to work on important, relevant research as an undergrad is not out of the ordinary for BYU students. Thirty percent of students report having a research experience, mentored by a professor, while an undergraduate.

Working in the Biology Research Lab with graduate and doctorate students, Winters was pleased to discover he wasn’t treated differently, even though he was an undergrad.

The research was part of The ENCODE Project and was published in the scientific journal, Genome Research. Johnson and Winters are listed as co-authors.

“The ENCODE project was my first assignment in the lab so I didn't fully appreciate the gravity of what I was doing,” Winters said. “After some time really getting involved in Dr. Johnson's research, I learned how big a deal it was. Most projects at most universities are carried out by graduate students. The undergrads are almost always limited to dishwashing, preparing cultures or other menial tasks. I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity.”

To support student mentoring in the 2011-2012 academic year, the university's Office of Research and Creative Activities awarded $450,000 to 321 undergraduates whose research proposals merited grants. BYU also gave $1.4 million to 71 faculty members specifically for projects involving undergraduates. Winters and Johnson were recipients of one such grant.

“It was a fantastic privilege working with Dr. Johnson the last few years on this project,” Winters said. “I'm very lucky to have been tutored by him. The background I received in basic biology courses was helpful, but the real education began when I started working in his research lab.”

Winters has since graduated from BYU and is a first-year medical student attending the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Writer: Jon McBride