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Movies for the human genome

Name a human gene, and you can find a movie online showing you what happens to cells when it is switched off.

This is the resource that researchers at EMBL and their collaborators in the Mitocheck consortium are making freely available, as the result of a study in which they have identified the genes involved in mitosis in humans.

Their work begins to unravel the molecular workings of one of the most fundamental processes of life: how one cell becomes two. ‘Without mitosis, nothing happens in life, really,’ says Jan Ellenberg, who led the study at EMBL, ‘and when mitosis goes wrong, you get defects like cancer.’

Ellenberg and colleagues found that of the 22,000 genes in each human cell, almost 600 play a part in mitosis. To uncover which genes are involved in this process, the scientists inactivated each of the 22,000 human genes in a different set of cells and filmed those cells for 48 hours under a microscope. This generated almost 200,000 time-lapse movies of mitosis.

The scientists created a computer program that analyzes the footage and automatically detects what characteristic defects cells display, and in what order. By grouping genes with similar effects, they were able to identify genes involved in mitosis, which they confirmed with further experimental assays.

‘The end result is that we now have a very rich resource for the scientific community, as we’re making all the movies and all the analysis data freely available online,’ Ellenberg emphasizes: ‘Scientists can go to the website, type in the name of their favourite gene, and watch what happens when it is silenced; they can find out what other genes have similar effects – all in a few mouse clicks, instead of months or years of work in the lab!’

But mitosis is not solved yet, the scientists say. They have yet to uncover exactly how these genes act at the molecular level – a task that will be tackled by a follow-up project called Mitosys. All data from this follow-up work will also be made freely available online, creating what Ellenberg describes as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for mitosis research.

The study was carried out as part of the Mitocheck consortium, and the data is available at The consortium has also investigated the proteins encoded by these genes, identifying those involved in separating the paired chromosomes during mitosis in a paper published online today in Science.

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