News Release

DNA riddle unravelled: How cells access data from 'genetic cotton reels'

Scientists have identified a motor protein that helps cells access DNA information when they need it

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Sydney

How the CHD4 Protein Works

video: A technical animation showing how the CHD4 motor protein allows cells access DNA information. view more 

Credit: Jack Kaiser/Square Cell & Joel Mackay/University of Sydney

Australian scientists have unravelled part of the mystery about how nature can usefully access genetic information in cells despite it being so tightly packed away.

The discovery helps solve what is effectively an ‘input/output’ problem caused by the need for cells to pack metres of DNA into a space just millionths of a metre across – but at the same time read, copy and repair the information held in the DNA. It also helps provide pathways to understand how defects in this process contribute to disease such as schizophrenia and cancer.

Led by Professor Joel Mackay in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, the biochemists have revealed that a particular motor protein, CHD4, is used to access genetic information tightly spooled onto what can be imagined as ‘genetic cotton reels’.

The research is published today in Nature Communications.

Professor Mackay said: “This protein effectively remodels our DNA to allow access to the information that determines the fate of a cell and its ability to respond to signals from the outside. It is a critical protein for almost all the work that cells do, including cell division and DNA repair.”

Understanding this process will be critical in the long term for developing treatments for neurodevelopmental disorders and some cancers.

“These illnesses are in part triggered by defects in the remodelling of the DNA that is driven by this process,” Professor Mackay said.

“The protein CHD4 and its close partners are emerging as important risk factors in polygenic neurodevelopmental disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as in rare monogenic disorders, such as GAND, which causes severe mental disability,” Professor Mackay said.

He said that mutations in the CHD4 protein that impair its function are also associated with endometrial carcinoma.


Professor Joel Mackay | | +61 413 841 543
School of Life and Environmental Sciences
The University of Sydney, Australia


Marcus Strom | +61 423 982 485 |


The work was funded by the following grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia: APP1012161, APP1063301, APP1126357 and a fellowship from the same organization to Professor Joel Mackay (APP1058916). Antoine van Oijen is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow.

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