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Human genome was shaped by an evolutionary arms race with itself

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posted on Sep, 29 2014 @ 02:28 PM

New findings by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggest that an evolutionary arms race between rival elements within the genomes of primates drove the evolution of complex regulatory networks that orchestrate the activity of genes in every cell of our bodies.

The arms race is between mobile DNA sequences known as "retrotransposons" (a.k.a. "jumping genes") and the genes that have evolved to control them. The UC Santa Cruz researchers have, for the first time, identified genes in humans that make repressor proteins to shut down specific jumping genes. The researchers also traced the rapid evolution of the repressor genes in the primate lineage.

Their findings, published September 28 in Nature, show that over evolutionary time, primate genomes have undergone repeated episodes in which mutations in jumping genes allowed them to escape repression, which drove the evolution of new repressor genes, and so on. Furthermore, their findings suggest that repressor genes that originally evolved to shut down jumping genes have since come to play other regulatory roles in the genome.

"We have basically the same 20,000 protein-coding genes as a frog, yet our genome is much more complicated, with more layers of gene regulation. This study helps explain how that came about,"

Retrotransposons: thought to be remnants of ancient viruses that infected early animals and inserted their genes into the genome long before humans evolved. Now they can only replicate themselves within the genome. Depending on where a new copy gets inserted into the genome, a jumping event can disrupt normal genes and cause disease. Often the effect is neutral, simply adding to the overall size of the genome. Very rarely the effect might be advantageous, because the added DNA can itself be a source of new regulatory elements that enhance gene expression. But the high probability of deleterious effects means natural selection favors the evolution of mechanisms to prevent jumping events.

Scientists estimate that jumping genes or "transposable elements" account for at least 50 percent of the human genome, and retrotransposons are by far the most common type.

"There have been successive waves of retrotransposon activity in primate evolution, when a transposable element changed to become expressed and replicated itself throughout the genome until something turned it off," Salama said. "We've discovered a major mechanism by which the genome is able to shut down these mobile DNA elements."

The repressors identified in the new study belong to a large family of proteins known as "KRAB zinc finger proteins." These are DNA-binding proteins that repress gene activity, and they constitute the largest family of gene-regulating proteins in mammals. The human genome has over 400 genes for KRAB zinc finger proteins, and about 170 of them have emerged since primates diverged from other mammals.

The findings in this study support the idea that expansion of this family of repressor genes occurred in response to waves of retrotransposon activity. Because repression of a jumping gene also affects genes located near it on the chromosome, the researchers suspect that these repressors have been co-opted for other gene-regulatory functions, and that those other functions have persisted and evolved long after the jumping genes the repressors originally turned off have degraded due to the accumulation of random mutations.

They also believe that this study shows how important it is to integrate computational and experimental approaches to fundamental scientific problems, such as how and why we continuously evolve to be more complex. I agree, you shouldn't just rely on computational approaches if there is an ability to use experimental approaches.

Human genome was shaped by an evolutionary arms race with itself

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