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Leaky genes put evolution on the fast track, Pitt and UW-Madison researchers find
Date:6/15/2011

PITTSBURGHSmall genetic mutations that add up over time could create an evolutionary express lane that leads to the rapid development of new traits, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin at Madison have found.

The team reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that slight changes in segments of DNA known as transcriptional enhancerswhich determine the when, where, and how much in gene productioncan activate dormant genetic imperfections. These alterations awaken specific genes to low-level activity, or "leakiness," in developing tissue different from the genes' typical location. Just a few subsequent mutations build on that stirring to result in a new function for an old geneand possibly a novel trait.

Coauthor Mark Rebeiz [Ra-BAYS], a professor of biological sciences in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, and his colleagues traced how a certain unwitting gene found itself in the unique optical neurons of a species of fruit fly. They found that tiny alterations in the transcriptional enhancers of the species' ancestor caused the gene to take root in these neurons for the first time. A couple of mutations later and the gene became a permanent fixture in the fly's brain cells. Rebeiz worked with coauthors Sean Carroll, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the UW-Madison; Nick Jikomes, an undergraduate researcher in Carroll's laboratory; and Victoria Kassner, a research associate in Carroll's lab.

The Pitt-UW Madison work expands on research during the past 30 years demonstrating that new genes made from scratch are rare in animals, Rebeiz said. Instead, the diversity of living things is thought to stem from existing genes showing up in new locations. In a famous example of the lack of originality in animal genes, researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland reported in Science in 1995 that a gene known as PAX6, a "master control" ge
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Contact: Morgan Kelly, Pitt News Representative
mekelly@pitt.edu
412-624-4356
University of Pittsburgh
Source:Eurekalert  

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