Genome project opens the book on human evolution

Like an enormous library, the human genome project now awaits the work of a generation of scientists who will catalogue and organize its contents and begin to read and understand its secrets. Researchers at the University of Chicago open the book on human molecular evolution with a paper in the February 12, 2001, issue of Nature. Evolutionary genomics, using computational analysis of whole genomes to directly address important questions about evolutionary biology, can now be applied to the understanding of human genes and their regulatory sequences.

"In this first exploration of the human genome data, we addressed questions interesting to molecular evolution that could be answered in some detail in a short time frame," said Wen-Hsiung Li, George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

One of the puzzles of human evolution has been the much higher percentage of repetitive DNA, stretches of DNA that are not genes but that share the same sequence of base pairs, in human than in other invertebrate genomes. The function of this so-called "junk DNA" has been a mystery. These repetitive elements (transposable elements) are found so frequently in our genome mainly because they are inserted more frequently into our genome than they can be got rid of, not because they confer advantage to us. The University of Chicago researchers confirmed the very high percentage of repetitive elements in the human genome--their analysis found it to be 43 percent, while repetitive elements in the genomes of organisms as diverse as Drosophila (fruit flies) and Arabidopsis (a mustard plant) average10 percent. In addition, they were able to look at the location of these elements.

These repetitive elements, particularly the element known as Alu, were found in a surprising num

Contact: Jeanne Galatzer-Levy
University of Chicago Medical Center

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