What is a gene?

By Grant Jacobs 27/07/2013


Genome TV is hosting an interesting series of short videos, asking different scientists what a gene is. (These are also available from the (USA) National Human Genome Research Institute website.)

In all there are ten interviews. I’ve embedded just a few of them below. (I offer them without meaning to imply I think these best as I haven’t—yet!—heard them all myself, nor in any order of ‘merit’.)

If you want to run through them all, start on the first video and let YouTube take you through them – on completing one, it’ll start the next. Each is only about a minute long.

Elise Feingold

Eric Green

Carlos Bustamante –

For myself, of those I’ve heard I liked some of Richard Wilson’s thoughts –

Genes aren’t ‘always on’, they are regulated. In addition to the potions of our genome that code for functional RNAs—whether they are functional as RNAs or mRNAs that are translated into proteins—there are the regions that determine when these genes become active in our bodies and what cell types of our bodies use which particular genes. These, too, are inherited and are linked the phenotype, the physical and biochemical properties of a creature – the ‘output’ of the genes.

Furthermore, increasingly genomes are though of in terms of larger regulatory units, chromatin loops that genes are part of that are defined by boundary elements and insulators. (I’ve touched on this in an older post.) These larger regulatory settings also relate to different phenotypes.

To complicate matters, regulatory elements don’t necessarily have simple one-to-one relationships with one gene.

So, as Richard Wilson suggested, perhaps it’s best not to get too hung up on precisely what a gene might be defined as and more pragmatically focus on what variation occurs and what that variation says about how genomes are organised and controlled – ?


Other articles on Code for life:

Transcribing a gene, free poster

Epigenetics and 3-D gene structure

François Jacob

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

Note to science communicators–alleles not “disease genes”