Science News reports: Face-to-face, a human and a chimpanzee are easy to tell apart. The two species share a common primate ancestor, but over millions of years, their characteristics have morphed into easily distinguishable features. Chimps developed prominent brow ridges, flat noses, low-crowned heads and protruding muzzles. Human noses jut from relatively flat faces under high-domed crowns.
Those facial features diverged with the help of genetic parasites, mobile bits of genetic material that insert themselves into their hosts’ DNA. These parasites go by many names, including “jumping genes,” “transposable elements” and “transposons.” Some are relics of former viruses assimilated into a host’s genome, or genetic instruction book. Others are self-perpetuating pieces of genetic material whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time.
“Transposable elements have been with us since the beginning of evolution. Bacteria have transposable elements,” says evolutionary biologist Josefa González. She doesn’t think of transposons as foreign DNA. They are parts of our genomes — like genes.
“You cannot understand the genome without understanding what transposable elements are doing,” says González, of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. She studies how jumping genes have influenced fruit fly evolution.
Genomes of most organisms are littered with the carcasses of transposons, says Cédric Feschotte, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Fossils of the DNA parasites build up like the remains of ancient algae that formed the white cliffs of Dover. One strain of maize, the organism in which Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock first discovered transposable elements in the 1940s, is nearly 85 percent transposable elements (SN: 12/19/09, p. 9). Corn is an extreme example, but humans have plenty, too: Transposable elements make up nearly half of the human genome.
Most of the transposons in the genomes of humans and other creatures are now “dead,” meaning they are no longer able to jump. The majority are in bits and pieces scattered throughout the genome like so much confetti. Many researchers used to think these broken transposons were just genetic garbage.
Far from junk, however, jumping gene remnants have been an evolutionary treasure trove. Some of the control switches transposons once used for their own hopping have been recycled over time into useful tools that help species, including Homo sapiens, adapt to their environments or take on new characteristics. [Continue reading…]