In a paper published in Genome Research on Nov. 4, scientists at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) report that what was previously believed to be "junk" DNA is one of the important ingredients distinguishing humans from other species.
More than 50 percent of human DNA has been referred to as "junk" because it consists of copies of nearly identical sequences. A major source of these repeats is internal viruses that have inserted themselves throughout the genome at various times during mammalian evolution.
Using the latest sequencing technologies, GIS researchers showed that many transcription factors, the master proteins that control the expression of other genes, bind specific repeat elements. The researchers showed that from 18 to 33% of the binding sites of five key transcription factors with important roles in cancer and stem cell biology are embedded in distinctive repeat families.
Over evolutionary time, these repeats were dispersed within different species, creating new regulatory sites throughout these genomes. Thus, the set of genes controlled by these transcription factors is likely to significantly differ from species to species and may be a major driver for evolution.
This research also shows that these repeats are anything but "junk DNA," since they provide a great source of evolutionary variability and might hold the key to some of the important physical differences that distinguish humans from all other species.
The GIS study also highlighted the functional importance of portions of the genome that are rich in repetitive sequences.
"Because a lot of the biomedical research use model organisms such as mice and primates, it is important to have a detailed understanding of the differences between these model organisms and humans in order to explain our findings," said Guillaume Bourque, Ph.D., GIS Senior Group Leader and lead author of the Genome Research paper.
|Contact: Cathy Yarbrough|
Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore