Jumping genes also provide genomic stability


The DNA molecule inside the nucleus of any human cell is more than six feet long. To fit into such a small space, it must fold into precise loops that also govern how genes are turned on or off. It might seem counterintuitive that bits of DNA that randomly move about the genome can provide stability to these folding patterns. Indeed, the discovery contradicts a long-held assumption that the precise order of letters in the DNA sequence always dictates the broader structure of the DNA molecule.

In places where the larger 3D folding of the genome is the same between mice and humans, you expect the sequence of the letters of the DNA anchoring that shape to be conserved there as well, But that's not what we found, at least not in the portions of the genome that in the past have been called 'junk DNA.

Studying DNA folding in mouse and human blood cells, the researchers found that in many regions where the folding patterns of DNA are conserved through evolution, the genetic sequence of the DNA letters establishing these folds is not. It is ever so slightly displaced. But this changing sequence, a genetic turnover, doesn't cause problems. Because the structure largely stays the same, the function presumably does, too, so nothing of importance changes.

"Researchers were surprised to find that some young transposable elements serve to maintain old structures," The specific sequence may be different, but the function stays the same. And we see that this has happened multiple times over the past 80 million years, when the common ancestors of mice and humans first diverged from one another

The fact that a new transposable element can insert itself and serve the same role as an existing anchor creates a redundancy in the regulatory portions of the genome regions of the DNA molecule that determine how and when genes are turned on or off.

According to the researchers, this redundancy makes the genome more resilient. In providing both novelty and stability, jumping genes may help the mammalian genome strike a vital balance allowing animals the flexibility to adapt to a changing climate, for example, while preserving biological functions required for life, protecting against the DNA damage that is wrought by living and reproducing on Earth over the span of deep time, measured in tens to hundreds of millions of years.

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