SCIENTISTS from York have revealed that genes are controlled by ‘nano footballs’ – structures 10 million times smaller than the average ball.

University of York researchers found that by placing tiny glowing probes on transcription factors - special chemicals inside cells which control whether a gene is switched ‘on’ or ‘off’ - researchers gained a remarkable new insight into the way in which genes are controlled.

They discovered that transcription factors operate not as single molecules as was previously thought, but as a spherical football-like cluster of around seven to ten molecules.

The discovery will not only help researchers understand more about the basic ways in which genes operate, but may also provide important insights into human health problems, including cancer.

Researchers employed advanced super-resolution microscopy to look at the nano footballs in real time, using the same type of yeast cells utilised in baking and brewing beer.

Professor Mark Leake, Chair of Biological Physics at the University of York who led the work, said: “Our ability to see inside living cells, one molecule at a time, is simply breathtaking.

“We had no idea that we would discover that transcription factors operated in this clustered way. The textbooks all suggested that single molecules were used to switch genes on and off, not these crazy nano footballs that we observed.”