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December 20, 2012

UVA DNA discovery makes top 10 list for 2012

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A groundbreaking DNA discovery led by the University of Virginia School of Medicine has earned recognition in a list of the year’s top 10 research advances, as compiled by the director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

“2012 may be considered the year of genomic weirdness,” Director Thomas R. Insel, MD, writes in introducing his No. 3 category, labeled “unexpected variation.” Included in that category is a description of the UVA-led discovery: “Who knew that microDNA segments could be transmitted independently of chromosomes? There appear to be thousands of short (200-400 bases long) circular DNA elements that function free of the well-known structured bundles of DNA called chromosomes in mammalian cells.”

The discovery of microDNA was outlined in a paper published in the journal Science. The research was led by Anindya Dutta, MD, PhD, Chairman of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the UVA School of Medicine. 

“We are very pleased that our work was highlighted,” Dutta says. “Needless to say, this kind of discovery can happen at UVA because of the strong tradition and support for basic research that the institution is famous for.”

Dutta’s team, including researchers at UVA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, determined that the creation of microDNA leads to genetic variation within cells of the same tissue. This finding could have significant implications for diseases such as autism and schizophrenia that are thought to have genetic links but for which no gene mutation has been identified as the cause. 

In introducing his list of 2012’s top research advances, Insel writes: “This year several of the major breakthroughs were … not directly focused on mental disorders, but they suggested new vistas for biology that will almost certainly change the way we understand serious mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Insel’s complete list of the year’s biggest research advances can be read on his blog.

The original press release on the discovery of microDNA can be found in the Health System Newsroom .

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