"This mobility adds an element of variety and flexibility to neurons in a real Darwinian sense of randomness and selection," says Fred H. Gage, Professor and co-head of the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute and the lead author of the study published in this week's Nature. This process of creating diversity with the help of mobile elements and then selecting for the fittest is restricted to the brain and leaves other organs unaffected. "You wouldn't want that added element of individuality in your heart," he adds.
Precursor cells in the embryonic brain, which mature into neurons, look and act more or less the same. Yet, these precursors ultimately give rise to a panoply of nerve cells that are enormously diverse in form and function and together form the brain. Identifying the mechanisms that lead to this diversification has been a longstanding challenge. "People have speculated that there might be a mechanism to create diversity in brain like there is in the immune system, and the immune system's diversity is perhaps the closest analogy we have," says Gage.
In the immune system, the genes coding for antibodies are shuffled to create a wide variety of antibodies capable of recognizing an infinite number of distinct antigens.
In their study, the researchers closely tracked a single human mobile genetic element, a so-called LINE-1 or L1 element in cultured neuronal precursor cells from rats. Then they introduced it into mice. Ev