Flanked by the Tyrrhenian Sea, volcanic Vesuvius and the idyllic island of Capri, Naples has a colourful history stemming back to Greek and Roman times. I’m instantly charmed by its vibrant street-life, chaotic traffic and tiny winding alleyways populated with artisans and craftsmen. I navigate through the hustle and bustle, collecting impressions from centuries past before submerging into one of many artful tube stations. I head to the Dulbecco Telethon Institute at IGB CNR to meet a Roman researcher. If Valerio Orlando weren’t a scientist, he would have been a film director in the vein of Federico Fellini, but as he now explains, “My long term interest is to understand how cells maintain and perhaps change their identity by reorganising their chromosomes”.

Valerio’s research team is investigating how our genes get locked up, switched off and perhaps later reactivated. Their insights into genome control come principally from fruit flies, although they have developed techniques to look at mammalian cells in vitro. Both flies and mammals employ homeotic (body-plan) genes as they grow and develop. Homeotic mutants, such as flies with legs growing out of their head in place of antennae, were discovered a few decades ago. More recently, scientists have realised that a memory system controls homeotic gene expression maintenance by means of antagonistic protein complexes. Polycomb-group proteins are integral to homeotic gene repression, whereas trithorax-group proteins suppress their activity. Failure of these complexes can also cause huge changes in cell identity, loss of stem cells and cancer.

The long-term goal is to discover the intricate mechanisms by which these protein complexes can act on chromosome structure, switching genes on and off. “Memory proteins are the crossroads between homeostasis and differentiation. We want to open a window for reprogramming the genome,” explains Valerio. “We reckon that by tackling the memory system we could alter the destiny of normal body cells. They could rediscover their earliest youth,” he alleges excitedly. "Perhaps you could liken it to an escape from the ritual cycle of life and death that Neapolitans know so well."