Much of the DNA that makes up our genomes can be traced back to strange rogue sequences known as transposable elements, or jumping genes, which are largely idle in mammals. But Johns Hopkins researchers report they have identified a new DNA sequence moving around in bats the first member of its class found to be active in mammals. The discovery, described in a report published in December on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers a new means of studying evolution, and may help in developing tools for gene therapy, the research team says.
"Transposable elements are virtually everywhere in nature, from bacteria to humans," says Nancy Craig, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes investigator and professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. "They're often seen as parasites, replicating themselves and passing from generation to generation without doing anything for their hosts. But in fact they play an important role in fueling adaptation and evolution by adding variability to the genome."
As their name suggests, jumping genes can move from place to place in the genome, sometimes even inserting themselves into the middle of another gene. Some work by replicating themselves and inserting the copies into new places in the genome retroviruses such as HIV are comprised of this type of jumping gene, which enables the host cell to be hijacked to make more virus particles. Another class of jumping genes, known as "DNA cut-and-paste," doesn't make copies, but instead cuts itself out of one site in the genome before hopping into another. Craig explains that in mammal genomes, most jumping genes are of the copy-and-paste variety, and most of these are fossils, mutated to the point where they can no longer move about. Although some remnants of cut-and-paste jumping genes have been unearthed in mammals, until now, all of them have been inactive.
|Contact: Shawna Williams|
Johns Hopkins Medicine