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Study Finds Genetic Mutations in Healthy Human Tissues

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General mutations throughout the body

The standard view of biology is that every normal cell copies its DNA instruction book with complete accuracy every time it divides. And thus, with a few exceptions like the immune system, cells in normal, healthy tissue continue to contain exactly the same genome sequence as was present in the initial single-cell embryo that gave rise to that individual. But new evidence suggests it may be time to revise that view.

By analyzing genetic information collected throughout the bodies of nearly 500 different individuals, researchers discovered that almost all had some seemingly healthy tissue that contained pockets of cells bearing particular genetic mutations. Some even harbored mutations in genes linked to cancer. The findings suggest that nearly all of us are walking around with genetic mutations within various parts of our bodies that, under certain circumstances, may have the potential to give rise to cancer or other health conditions.

Efforts such as NIH’s The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) have extensively characterized the many molecular and genomic alterations underlying various types of cancer. But it has remained difficult to pinpoint the precise sequence of events that lead to cancer, and there are hints that so-called normal tissues, including blood and skin, might contain a surprising number of mutations —perhaps starting down a path that would eventually lead to trouble.

In the study published in Science, a team from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, led by Gad Getz and postdoctoral fellow Keren Yizhak, along with colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital, decided to take a closer look. They turned their attention to the NIH’s Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project.

The GTEx is a comprehensive public resource that shows how genes are expressed and controlled differently in various tissues throughout the body. To capture those important differences, GTEx researchers analyzed messenger RNA sequences within thousands of healthy tissue samples collected from people who died of causes other than cancer.

Getz, Yizhak, and colleagues wanted to use that extensive RNA data in another way: to detect mutations that had arisen in the DNA genomes of cells within those tissues. To do it, they devised a method for comparing those tissue-derived RNA samples to the matched normal DNA. They call the new method RNA-MuTect.

All told, the researchers analyzed RNA sequences from 29 tissues, including heart, stomach, pancreas, and fat, and matched DNA from 488 individuals in the GTEx database. Those analyses showed that the vast majority of people—a whopping 95 percent—had one or more tissues with pockets of cells carrying new genetic mutations.

While many of those genetic mutations are most likely harmless, some have known links to cancer. The data show that genetic mutations arise most often in the skin, esophagus, and lung tissues. This suggests that exposure to environmental elements—such as air pollution in the lung, carcinogenic dietary substances in the esophagus, or the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight that hits the skin—may play important roles in causing genetic mutations in different parts of the body.

The findings clearly show that, even within normal tissues, the DNA in the cells of our bodies isn’t perfectly identical. Rather, mutations constantly arise, and that makes our cells more of a mosaic of different mutational events. Sometimes those altered cells may have a subtle growth advantage, and thus continue dividing to form larger groups of cells with slightly changed genomic profiles. In other cases, those altered cells may remain in small numbers or perhaps even disappear.

It’s not yet clear to what extent such pockets of altered cells may put people at greater risk for developing cancer down the road. But the presence of these genetic mutations does have potentially important implications for early cancer detection. For instance, it may be difficult to distinguish mutations that are truly red flags for cancer from those that are harmless and part of a new idea of what’s “normal.”

To further explore such questions, it will be useful to study the evolution of normal mutations in healthy human tissues over time. It’s worth noting that so far, the researchers have only detected these mutations in large populations of cells. As the technology advances, it will be interesting to explore such questions at the higher resolution of single cells.

Getz’s team will continue to pursue such questions, in part via participation in the recently launched NIH Pre-Cancer Atlas. It is designed to explore and characterize pre-malignant human tumors comprehensively. While considerable progress has been made in studying cancer and other chronic diseases, it’s clear we still have much to learn about the origins and development of illness to build better tools for early detection and control.


[1] RNA sequence analysis reveals macroscopic somatic clonal expansion across normal tissues. Yizhak K, Aguet F, Kim J, Hess JM, Kübler K, Grimsby J, Frazer R, Zhang H, Haradhvala NJ, Rosebrock D, Livitz D, Li X, Arich-Landkof E, Shoresh N, Stewart C, Segrè AV, Branton PA, Polak P, Ardlie KG, Getz G. Science. 2019 Jun 7;364(6444).


Genotype-Tissue Expression Program

The Cancer Genome Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Pre-Cancer Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Getz Lab (Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Cancer Institute; National Library of Medicine; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

Deciphering Secrets of Longevity, from Worms

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Microscopic view of a glowing green worm

Caption: Long-lived worms show increased activation of DAF-16 (green), a protein linked with longevity in worms and humans.
Credit: Kapahi Lab, Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Novato, CA

How long would you want to live, if you could remain healthy? New clues from experiments done in microscopic worms suggest that science may have the potential to extend life spans dramatically.

Taking advantage of the power of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) as a model system for genetic studies, NIH-funded researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, CA, decided to set about testing ways to extend the worms’ lifespan.

Fighting Obesity: New Hopes From Brown Fat

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Artist rendition of a xray showing brown fat as glowing green

Caption: Brown fat—actually marked in green on this image—is wrapped around the neck and shoulders. This “shawl” of brown fat warms blood before it travels to the brain.
Illustration: John MacNeill, based on patient imaging software designed by Ilan Tal. Copyright 2011 Joslin Diabetes Center

If you want to lose weight, then you actually want more fat, not less. But you need the right kind: brown fat. This special type of fatty tissue burns calories, puts out heat like a furnace, and helps to keep you trim. White fat, on the other hand, stores extra calories and makes you, well, fat. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could instruct our bodies to make more brown fat, and less white fat? Well, NIH-funded researchers have just taken another step in that direction [1].

New Understanding of a Common Kidney Cancer

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Purple stained kidney tissue

Caption: Histologic image of clear cell kidney cancer
Slide courtesy of W. Marston Linehan, National Cancer Institute, NIH

Understanding how cancer cells shift into high gear—what makes them become more aggressive and unresponsive to treatment—is a key concern of cancer researchers. A new study reveals how this escalation occurs in the most common form of kidney cancer: clear cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC). The study shows that ccRCC tumors acquire specific mutations that encourage uncontrollable growth and shifts in energy use and production [1].

Conducted by researchers in the NIH-led The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Research Network, the study compared more than 400 ccRCC tumors from individual patients with healthy tissue samples from the same patients. Researchers were looking for differences in the gene activity and proteins in healthy vs. tumor tissue.

Fishing for Answers in Human Disease

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Images of both a wild type zebrafish and a vhnf1 mutant zebrafish. The mutant fish shows abnormal bulging in its upper body.

Caption: Researcher Zhaoxia Sun, at Yale, uses the zebrafish to study Polycystic Kidney Disease, which affects more than 600,000 Americans. Mutations in the zebrafish vhnf1 gene, and its human counterpart, cause cysts in both zebrafish and human kidneys (as shown by the large “bubble” seen in the mutant fish). [3]
Credit: Zhoaxia Sun, Biological & Biomedical Sciences, Yale University

Wouldn’t it be instructive if we could see the effect of a genetic mutation in real time, as the gene was misbehaving? Well, that’s one of the perks of using the zebrafish—a tiny, striped, transparent fish.

Just last month, an international team of scientists—funded in part by NIH—published the entire genetic code of the zebrafish [1]. This is a vital resource for understanding human health and disease. How does the genetic blueprint of a fish help us or accelerate drug discovery? Well, it turns out that more than 75% of the genes that have been implicated in human diseases have counterparts in the zebrafish. So, if we discover a mutation in a human, we can make the corresponding mutation in the zebrafish gene—and often get a pretty good idea of how the gene works, how the mutation causes havoc, and how it causes disease in humans. We can even use the zebrafish to test potential drug candidates, to see whether they can alter or fix the symptoms before moving on to mice or humans.