Shifting the Genetic Furniture


Readers of these pages will know very well that cells are packets of magic. Of course, we often describe them in the simplest terms: ‘Sacs of gooey stuff with lots of molecules floating around.’ And it’s true that we know a lot about the protein pathways that capture energy from the food we eat and about the machinery that duplicates genetic material, makes new proteins and sustains life. Even so, although we’ve worked out much molecular detail, we have scarcely a clue about how ‘stuff’ in cells is organised. How do the tens of thousands of different types of proteins find their places in the seemingly chaotic jumble of a cell so that they can do their job? If that remains a mystery there’s an even more perplexing one in the form of the nucleus. That’s a smaller sac (i.e. a compartment surrounded by a membrane) that is home to most of our genetic material — i.e. DNA.

Sizing up the problem

It’s easy to see why evolution came up with the idea of a separate enclosure for DNA which only has to do two things: reproduce itself and enable regions of its four base code to be transcribed into molecules that can cross the nuclear membrane to be translated into proteins in the body of the cell. But here’s the puzzle. The nucleus is very small and there’s an awful lot of DNA — over 3,000 million bases in each of the two strands of human DNA (and, of course, two complete sets of chromosomes go to make up the human genome) — so 2 metres of it in every cell. A rather pointless exercise, unless you go in for pub quizzes, is to work out the length of all your DNA if you put it together in a single string. 1013 cells (i.e. 1 followed by 13 zeros) in your body: 2 metres per cell. Answer: your DNA would stretch to the sun and back 67 times.

Mmm. More relevantly, the nucleus of a cell is typically about 6 micrometres (µm) in diameter — that’s six millionths of a metre (6/1,000,000 metre), into which our 2 metres must squeeze.

Time for some serious packing to be done but it’s not just a matter of stuffing it in any old how and sitting on the lid. As we’ve just noted, every time cells divide all the DNA has to be replicated and regions (i.e. genes) are continually being “read” to make proteins. So the machinery in the nucleus has to be able to get at specific regions of DNA and disentangle them sufficiently for code reading. Part of evolution’s solution to these problems has been to add proteins called histones to DNA (the term chromosome refers to DNA together with histone packaging proteins and other proteins). To understand how this leads to “more being less”, consider DNA as a length of cotton. If you just scrunch the cotton up into a ball you get a tangled mess. But if you use cotton reels (aka histones — two or three hundred million per cell), you can reduce the great length to smaller, more organized blocks — which is just as well because they’re all that stands between life and a tangled mess.

Thinking of histones as cotton reels helps a bit in thinking about how the nucleus achieves the seemingly impossible but the fact of the matter is that we have no real idea about how DNA is unravelling is controlled so that the two strands can be unzipped and replicated, yet alone the way in which starting points for reading genes are found by proteins.

Undeterred by our profound ignorance Haifeng Wang and colleagues at Stanford University have just done something really amazing. They came up with a way of moving regions of DNA from the jumble of the nuclear interior to the membrane and they showed that this can change the activity of genes. They used CRISPR (that we described in Re-writing the Manual of Life) to insert a short piece of DNA next to a chosen gene. The insert was tagged with a protein designed to attach to a hormone that also binds to a protein (called emerin) that sits in the nuclear membrane. So the idea was that when the hormone is added to cells it can hook on to the DNA tag and, by attaching to emerin, can drag the chosen gene to the membrane. The coupling agent is a plant hormone (abscisic acid) although it also occurs in other species, including humans. Wang & Co christened their method CRISPR-GO for CRISPR-Genome Organizer.

Tagging a DNA insert with a protein so that a coupling molecule can pull a region of DNA to a protein in the membrane of the nucleus. From Wang et al., 2018.

Repositioning regions of DNA in the nucleus. DNA is labeled blue which defines the shape of the nucleus. Red dots are specific genes before (left) and after (right) adding the coupling agent. From Pennisi 2018.

How did CRISPR-GO go?

Astonishingly well. Not only could it shift tagged DNA from the interior to the membrane of the nucleus but the rearrangements could change the way cells behaved. Depending on which regions were moved and where to, cells grew more slowly or more rapidly.

So this is a really remarkable technical feat — but it’s not just molecular pyrotechnics for fun. It looks as though this approach may offer at long last a way of dissecting how cells go about getting a controlled response out of the mind-boggling complexity that is their genetic material.


Wang, H. et al. (2018). CRISPR-Mediated Programmable 3D Genome Positioning and Nuclear Organization. Cell 175, 1405-1417.

Pennisi, E. (2018). Moving DNA to a different part of the nucleus can change how it works. Science Oct. 11th.


Food Fix For Pharma Failure


If you held a global quiz, Question: “Which biological molecules can you name?” I guess, setting aside ‘DNA‘, the top two would be insulin and glucose. Why might that be? Well, the World Health Organization reckons diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the world. The number of people with diabetes has quadrupled in the last 30 years to over 420 million and, together with high levels of blood glucose (sugar), it kills nearly four million a year.

There are two forms of diabetes: in both the level of glucose in the blood is too high. That’s normally regulated by the hormone insulin, made in the pancreas. In Type 1 diabetes insulin isn’t made at all. In Type 2 insulin is made but doesn’t work properly.

When insulin is released into the bloodstream it can ‘talk’ to cells by binding to protein receptors that span cell membranes. Insulin sticks to the outside, the receptor changes shape and that switches on signalling pathways inside the cell. One of these causes transporter molecules to move into the cell membrane so that they can carry glucose from the blood into the cell. When insulin doesn’t work it is this circuit that’s disrupted.

Insulin signalling. Insulin binds to its receptor which transmits a signal across the cell membrane, leading to the activation of the enzyme PIK3. This leads indirectly to the movement of glucose transporter proteins to the cell membrane and influx of glucose.

So the key thing is that, under normal conditions, when the level of blood glucose rises (after eating) insulin is released from the pancreas. Its action (via insulin receptors on target tissues e.g., liver, muscle and fat) promotes glucose uptake and restores normal blood glucose levels. In diabetes, one way or another, this control is compromised.

Global expansion

Across most of the world the incidence of diabetes, obesity and cancer are rising in parallel. In the developed world most people are aware of the link between diabetes and weight: about 90% of adults with diabetes are overweight or obese. Over 2 billion adults (about one third of the world population) are overweight and nearly one third of these (31%) are obese — more than the number who are underweight. The cause and effect here is that obesity promotes long-term inflammation and insulin resistance — leading to Type 2 diabetes.

Including cancer

The first person who seems to have spotted a possible connection between diabetes and cancer was the 19th-century French surgeon Theodore Tuffier. He was a pioneer of lung and heart surgery and of spinal anaesthesia and he’s also a footnote in the history of art by virtue of having once owned A Young Girl Reading, one of the more famous oil paintings produced by the prolific 18th-century artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard (if you want to see it head for the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC). Tuffier noticed that having type 2 diabetes increased the chances of patients getting some forms of cancer and pondered whether there was a relationship between diabetes and cancer.

It was a good question then but it’s an even better one now when this duo have become dominant causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide.

We now know that being overweight increases the risk of a wide range of cancers including two of the most common types — breast and bowel cancers. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is also clear that diabetes (primarily type 2) is associated with increased risk for some cancers (liver, pancreas, endometrium, colon and rectum, breast, bladder).

With all this inter-connecting it’s perhaps not surprising that the pathway by which insulin regulates glucose also talks to signalling cascades involved in cell survival, growth and proliferation — in other words, potential cancer initiators. The central player in all this is a protein called PIK3 (it’s an enzyme that adds phosphate groups (so it’s a ‘kinase’) to a lipid called phosphatidylinositol bisphosphate, an oily, water-soluble component of the plasma membrane). It’s turned out that PIK3 is one of the most commonly mutated genes in human cancers — e.g., PIK3 mutations occur in 25–40% of all human breast cancers.

Signalling pathways switched on by mutant PIK3. A critical upshot is the activation of cell survival and growth that leads to cancer.

Accordingly, much effort has gone into producing drugs to block the action of PIK3 (or other steps in this signal pathway). The problem is that these have worked as cancer treatments either very variably or not at all.

The difficulty arises from the inter-connectivity of signalling that we’ve just described: a drug blocking insulin signalling causes the liver to release glucose and prevents muscle and fats cells from taking up glucose. Result: blood sugar levels rise (hyperglycaemia). This effect is usually transient as the pancreas makes more insulin that restores normal glucose levels.

Blockade of mutant PIK3 by an inhibitor. This blocks the route to cancer but glucose levels rise in the circulation (hyperglycaemia) promoting the release of insulin (top). Insulin can now signal through the normal pathway (bottom), overcoming the effect of the anti-cancer drug. Note that the cell has two copies of the PIK3 gene/protein, one of which is mutated, the other remaining normal.

Is our journey really necessary?

By now you might be wondering whether there is anything that makes grappling with insulin signaling worth the bother. Well, there is — and here it is. It’s a recent piece of work by Benjamin Hopkins, Lewis Cantley and colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York who looked at ways of getting round the insulin feedback response so that the effect of PIK3 inhibitors could be boosted.

Sketch showing the effect of diet on the potency of an anti-cancer drug in mice. The red line represents normal tumour growth. The black line shows the effect of PIK3 blockade when the mice are on a ketogenic diet: tumour growth is suppressed. On a normal diet the drug alone has only a slight effect on tumour growth. Similar results were obtained in a variety of model tumours (Hopkins et al., 2018).

They first showed that, in a range of model tumours in mice, insulin feedback caused by blockade of PIK3 was sufficient to switch on signalling even in the continued presence of anti-PIK3 drugs. The really brilliant result was that changing the diet of the mice could offset this effect. Switching the mice to a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate (sugar) diet essentially stopped the growth of tumours driven by mutant PIK3 treated with PIK3 blockers. This is a ketogenic (or keto) diet, the idea being to deplete the store of glucose in the liver and hence limit the rise in blood glucose following PIK3 blockade.

Giving the mice insulin after the drug drastically reduces the effect of the PIK3 inhibitor, supporting the idea that that a keto diet improves responses to PIK3 inhibitors by reducing blood insulin and hence its capacity to switch on signalling in tumour cells.

A few weeks prior to the publication of the PIK3 results another piece of work showed that adding the amino acid histidine to the diet of mice can increase the effectiveness of the drug methotrexate against leukemia. Methotrexate was one of the first anti-cancer agents to be made and has been in use for 70 years.

These are really remarkable results — as far as I know the first time diet has been shown to influence the efficacy of anti-cancer drugs. It doesn’t mean that all tumours with mutations in PIK3 have suddenly become curable or that the long-serving methotrexate is going to turn out to be a panacea after all — but it does suggest a way of improving the treatment of many types of tumour.


Hopkins, B.D. et al. (2018). Suppression of insulin feedback enhances the efficacy of PI3K inhibitors. Nature 560, 499-503.

Kanarek, N. et al. (2018). Histidine catabolism is a major determinant of methotrexate sensitivity. Nature 559, 632–636.