When we talk about diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure or depression, it’s easy to think that the all-powerful force behind our chances of suffering is genes. However, we’re going to have to get a bit more precise in how we think about it. New research, discussed in a New York Times story, shows that complex diseases, as well as all sorts of human wiring, is in our DNA, but not in our genes.

The research, which used federal funding and involved 440 scientists from 32 laboratories around the world, shows that a lot of what makes humanity function the way it does lies in material that was initially dismissed as “junk DNA.” These bits of DNA aren’t genes, but they contain switches that determine when and how various genes are activated.

Eric Lander, who was involved in documenting humanity’s genes through the Human Genome Project, compares the two endeavors to maps. If the Human Genome Project was like a satellite photo of the Earth, the new research is like Google Maps, with detailed data on roads, traffic flow and other “on the ground” activity.

Scientists say the wealth of new information generated by the project, some of which is being published in a number of major journals, may lead to new therapies for all sorts of diseases. For example, prostate cancer produces gene mutations that can’t easily be remedied with drugs, but it may be possible to target the control switches in DNA that causes the mutations.

The findings help researchers understand how the environment can affect the development of diseases. Even small environmental changes may result in changes to gene switches that determine whether someone becomes ill or not.

Before the project began in 2003, the general scientific consensus was that only 5 to 10 percent of human DNA is actually used. Now, the general understanding is that most of it is used, and at least half the genome consists of a stunningly huge array of instructions for turning genes on or off.

So far, the new research has generated 15 trillion bytes of raw data, used more than 300 years of computer time to analyze it and produced hundreds of scientific papers.

Image credit: Christoph Bock (Max Planck Institute for Informatics)