Jumping Genes, Taking Names

June 30, 2010

Brit Trogen

science in seconds blog brit trogen


Everyone wants to stand out in the crowd. And thanks to new findings independently reported by three labs in this week’s Cell, we all might be a lot more unique than we thought.

The identity-inducing culprit? Everyone’s favorite jumping genes: transposons. Yes, the genes that just can’t sit still—the same ones Barbara McClintock owes a large part of her fame to (hence the infamous corn)—are making a comeback in a major way. Because what self-respecting gene wants to wait for that lumbering, sloth-like beast we call evolution to be passed around from place to place? Chromosomal cross-overs are so last season. All the cool genes are getting active.

Transposons are believed to make up an astounding 50% of the genetic material of all humans, and while it was previously estimated that new transpositions occurred in about one in every 20 live births, this new research is showing that the number is much more frequent. Every baby born likely has a transposition that is completely unique.


What’s the significance of this new finding? Well, cancer, for one. While most transposons move around the genome “silently,” without causing any noticeable effect in the biology of the host, some can jump into oncogenes like those responsible for tumor suppression, unlocking key steps in the progression of the disease. Now that we are beginning to understand the extent of their activity, we can at least glean a better picture of the true role they may be playing in these types of mutations.


Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone and their lab tech pulls the C card. But when your project is literally half of the genome, I guess we can give you a pass.  


Iskow, R., McCabe, M., Mills, R., Torene, S., Pittard, W., Neuwald, A., Van Meir, E., Vertino, P., & Devine, S. (2010). Natural Mutagenesis of Human Genomes by Endogenous Retrotransposons Cell, 141 (7), 1253-1261 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.05.020


Lupski, J. (2010). Retrotransposition and Structural Variation in the Human Genome Cell, 141 (7), 1110-1112 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.06.014


Beck, C., Collier, P., Macfarlane, C., Malig, M., Kidd, J., Eichler, E., Badge, R., & Moran, J. (2010). LINE-1 Retrotransposition Activity in Human Genomes Cell, 141 (7), 1159-1170 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.05.021



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