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What are Housekeeping Genes?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 21, 2024

Housekeeping genes are genes which are always expressed because they produce proteins which are necessary for cell function. Throughout an organism with differentiated cells, it is common for the same housekeeping genes to be expressed in every cell, along with some genes which are specific to particular cell types. Hundreds of these genes have been identified in humans, and more are constantly being uncovered.

The proteins produced by a housekeeping gene vary, but are involved in some way in processes necessary to the survival of a cell. Some may be involved in sustaining cell function, while others may be involved in cell maintenance. These genes tend to produce proteins at steady rates, and errors in their expression can lead to cell death. Like a literal housekeeper, they keep the vital systems of a cell running smoothly so that it can continue to function, and they also contribute to the overall function of the larger organism.

While housekeeping genes were initially believed to be constant, some researchers have shown that the situation is actually a bit more complex. Some genetic research has shown that expression of certain housekeeping genes increases when cells become malignant, suggesting that these genes can be involved in the processes which cause cells to start running amok. In this case, overexpression of a gene may be contributing to the problem, rather than expression of a defective gene.

These genes can be useful outside the body as well. When calibrating testing systems and establishing baselines, housekeeping genes can be used as a constant, because they should always be present and should always have the same levels. If the constant is not consistent, it suggests that there may be a problem with the sample or the process being used, in which case it may be necessary to start afresh with a procedure such as polymerase chain reaction sequencing.

Geneticists are interested in housekeeping genes are part of the genome, and these genes are also topics of interest to researchers who study cell physiology. Understanding the complex reactions and genetic expression involved in the function of a cell is an important first step to understanding why cells sometimes develop problems such as multiplying too quickly, dying off, or failing to function as they should. These researchers can use a number of tools to identify housekeeping genes and explore their functions.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon925173 — On Jan 10, 2014

Which genes would you expect to be more similar among different species (house keeping or differentiation associated?)

By anon360165 — On Dec 24, 2013

BoniJ, to clarify, the topic described in the article is about "House-keeping genes", and not cells. These genes are involved in the normal maintenance of most cells, such as genes needed to be expressed to synthesise proteins for the cell's cytoskeleton, which would be common to all cells.

The tight regulation of the levels of expression of these genes are what researchers are trying to monitor in order to find how cells are able to overexpress genes and cause damage to the cell physiology.

By BoniJ — On Jul 06, 2011

I like the label for this kind of cell - housekeeping-gene. I wonder if this is a fairly new kind of cell that hasn't been discovered until recently? Think of the possibility that these cells that are always present, could be involved with over-production of cells and possibly one factor in the development of cancer.

It sounds like it would be a great accomplishment for researchers to understand the function of these housekeeping cells.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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