Scientists have called it "junk DNA." They have long been perplexed by these extensive strands of genetic material that dominate the genome but seem to lack specific functions. Why would nature force the genome to carry so much excess baggage?
Now researchers from Princeton University and Indiana University who have been studying the genome of a pond organism have found that junk DNA may not be so junky after all. They have discovered that DNA sequences from regions of what had been viewed as the "dispensable genome" are actually performing functions that are central for the organism. They have concluded that the genes spur an almost acrobatic rearrangement of the entire genome that is necessary for the organism to grow.
It all happens very quickly. Genes called transposons in the single-celled pond-dwelling organism Oxytricha produce cell proteins known as transposases. During development, the transposons appear to first influence hundreds of thousands of DNA pieces to regroup. Then, when no longer needed, the organism cleverly erases the transposases from its genetic material, paring its genome to a slim 5 percent of its original load.
"The transposons actually perform a central role for the cell," said Laura Landweber, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and an author of the study. "They stitch together the genes in working form." The work appeared in the May 15 edition of Science.
In order to prove that the transposons have this reassembly function, the scientists disabled several thousand of these genes in some Oxytricha. The organisms with the altered DNA, they found, failed to develop properly.
Other authors from Princeton's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology include: postdoctoral fellows Mariusz Nowacki and Brian Higgins; 2006 alumna Genevieve Maquilan; and graduate student Estienne Swart. Former Princeton postdoctoral fellow Thomas Doak, now of Indiana Univer
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