Abstract: The activity of the genes in a cell depends on the type of cell they are in, the interactions with other genes, the environment and genetics. Active genes produce a greater number of mRNA molecules, which act as messenger molecules to instruct the cell to produce proteins. The amount of mRNA molecules in cells can be measured to assess the levels of gene activity. Genes produce mRNAs through a process called transcription, and the collection of all the mRNA molecules in a cell is called the transcriptome. Cells obtained from human samples can be grown in the lab under different conditions, and this can be used to transform them into different types of cells. These cells can then be exposed to different treatments – such as specific chemicals – to understand how the environment affects them. Cells derived from different people may respond differently to the same treatment based on their unique genetics. Exposing different types of cells from many people to different treatments can help explain how genetics, the environment and cell type affect gene activity. Findley et al. grew three different types of cells from six different people in the lab. The cells were exposed to 28 different treatments, which reflect different environmental changes. Studying all these different factors together allowed Findley et al. to understand how genetics, cell type and environment affect the activity of over 53,000 genes. Around half of the effects due to an interaction between genetics and the environment and had not been seen in other larger studies of the transcriptome. Many of these newly observed changes are in genes that have connections to different diseases, including heart disease. The results of Findley et al. provide evidence indicating to which extent lifestyle and the environment can interact with an individual’s genetic makeup to impact gene activity and long-term health. The more researchers can understand these factors, the more useful they can be in helping to predict, detect and treat illnesses. The findings also show how genes and the environment interact, which may be relevant to understanding disease development. There is more work to be done to understand a wider range of environmental factors across more cell types. It will also be important to establish how this work on cells grown in the lab translates to human health.
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