COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Researchers here have discovered that introns -- parts of genes long thought to play no role in conveying genetic information -- may well be the key to determining where new information is transferred into a gene.
If true, the finding has important implications for potential future use in guiding genetic therapy. Current techniques can insert new information into genes but exactly where that information is transferred is often left to chance.
The new intron approach could allow researchers to insert new information at specific sites along a gene, allowing considerably more control than is now possible. Ohio State University researchers reported their findings in the May 23 issue of the British science journal Nature.
They also believe the discovery provides a window into how some of the earliest organisms evolved several billions of years ago since the introns function as very primitive genetic elements.
Alan Lambowitz, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Molecular Genetics, along with doctoral student Jian Yang and postdoctoral researcher Steven Zimmerly, focused on the simple organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae, ordinary baker's yeast. The yeast is widely used both in brewing and by geneticists for their research.
Genes are basically long strands of DNA that carry the essential genetic information needed to produce a protein. Scientists believed that only certain DNA sequences -- called exons -- carried useful information. Other pieces of "junk DNA" called introns are interspersed as "spacers" between the exons along the gene.
Lambowitz' team found that certain introns could move from place to place along a gene, inserting themselves at specific points along the DNA strand, and transferring genetic information in the process.
"This is really a very, very interesting finding," he said. "Previously, no one believed that it was possible."