Discovering and studying the minutia that makes up human cells and tissues is no easy task, hence why researchers are constantly inventing new tools to peer inside nature’s inner workings. Genetics researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland recently developed a new microscopic technology called 3D-CLEM which combines several types of microscopic imaging together to generate breathtakingly clear 3D images of chromosomes.
Together with advanced computer algorithms, 3D-CLEM can generate the most detailed three-dimensional images of human genetic material possible. Naturally, the first application of this technology has led to an incredible breakthrough that might turn our understanding of human chromosomes upside down.
According to a press release issued by the University of Edinburgh, up to 47 percent of every human chromosome is made up of a mysterious new structure they’ve dubbed “chromosome periphery.” Daniel Booth, led researcher in this study, claims that this discovery challenges long-held assumptions about chromosomes:
The imaging technique we have developed to study chromosomes is truly groundbreaking. Defining the structure of all 46 human chromosomes for the first time has forced us to reconsider the idea that they are composed almost exclusively of chromatin, an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged for almost 100 years.
Chromatin is the substance in chromosomes which contains the building blocks of life: protein, RNA, and DNA. It was previously believed that almost all of each chromosome was made up of these building blocks; this new find now forces researchers to examine what the role or purpose of this newfound chromosome periphery might be. According to the researchers’ published data, this could open up an entirely new field of study for human geneticists:
The behavior of this compartment, for example, whether it is liquid-like, and how it influences the structural changes in the chromatin during the transition from interphase to mitosis will now become a much more active area of study.
So far, the leading hypothesis seems to be that this extra material serves as a kind of sheath that keeps chromosomes separated during mitosis, but this has yet to be proven. Could this mysterious material be some sort of “secret ingredient” that has set humans on our current genetic trajectory? Until more testing can be conducted, this one remains a mystery.