Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Salk, UC San Diego Scientists Reveal First Look At 3-D Structure Of DNA

Horng Ou and Clodagh O’Shea are pictured in this undated photo.

Credit: Salk Institute

Above: Horng Ou and Clodagh O’Shea are pictured in this undated photo.

Salk, UC San Diego Scientists Reveal First Look At 3-D Structure Of DNA


Clodagh O'Shea, associate professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies


Salk and UC San Diego researchers have revealed for the first time the 3-D structure of DNA in living human cells. The discovery is expected to impact scientists ability to design drugs for hard to treat diseases.

Clodagh O'Shea is a cancer researcher and associate professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The research, out of her lab at Salk, is now the subject of the lead article in the latest edition of the journal Science.

To answer the question, "What is the fundamental structure of DNA?" O'Shea and her colleagues used a chemical dye to paint DNA inside a living cell with a metal polymer cast that when light is shined on it, the structure of the DNA can be viewed through an electron microscope.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Salk Institute

A 3D visualization of chromatin DNA is shown in this undated graphic.

When researchers first saw the reconstructed 3-D images of DNA chromatin at a 29,000x magnification, they thought they had made a mistake.

"When we first got the results, it wasn't like it was in the textbooks, which was kind of terrifying," O'Shea said. "Because we had no horse in the race — people had been working on this for decades — I simply wanted to know what (DNA chromatin) looked like. We then spent an awful long time wondering why it was wrong, why we were wrong. But then the more we looked and analyzed, we realized no, this really is what it looks like."

The discovery could lead scientists to develop more effective drugs, O'Shea said.

"What's amazing, is that what this dye does is paint the surface features of DNA chromatin and the nucleus and it's the surface features that potentially would be accessible to a drug so we have a surface map, right? So the question is, this is really looking to the future, but that's the kind of structure you need to design a drug," O'Shea said.


San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

  • Don’t have time to keep up on the latest news? We’ve got you covered with a mid-week check-in every Wednesday afternoon.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Midday Edition banner

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.