Tracks through the genome to physiological events

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Many proteins of great interest to physiologists and neuroscientists are structurally complex and located in specialized subcellular domains, such as neuronal synapses and transverse tubules of muscle. Genes that encode these critical signalling molecules (receptors, ion channels, transporters, enzymes, cell adhesion molecules, cell–cell interaction proteins and cytoskeletal proteins) are similarly complex. Typically, these genes are large; human Dystrophin (DMD) encodes a cytoskeletal protein of muscle and it is the largest naturally occurring gene at a staggering 2.3 Mb. Large genes contain many non-coding introns and coding exons; human Titin (TTN), which encodes a protein essential for the assembly and functioning of vertebrate striated muscles, has over 350 exons and consequently has an enormous capacity to generate different forms of Titin mRNAs that have unique exon combinations. Functional and pharmacological differences among protein isoforms originating from the same gene may be subtle but nonetheless of critical physiological significance. Standard functional, immunological and pharmacological approaches, so useful for characterizing proteins encoded by different genes, typically fail to discriminate among splice isoforms of individual genes. Tools are now available to access genome-wide data sets that harbour cell-specific, brain region-specific and tissue-specific information on exon usage for several species, including humans. In this Review, we demonstrate how to access this information in genome databases and its enormous value to physiology.

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