Pack-MULEs are toting a new look at plant evolution

y disrupt an orderly gene.

Jiang offers Indian corn as an example. An ear of Indian corn can be mostly row after row of purple kernels. Then a yellow kernel can show up. That's courtesy of the disruptive transposable element, an element that inserts itself into the gene that is responsible for the purple color. The transposable element jumps out and purple spots appear.

Some elements are mutator-like transposable elements called MULEs. Of those, Jiang has found that some carry fragments of cellular genes with them and were dubbed Pack-MULEs. No one can say scientists don't have a bit of poet in them.

Genome sequences are long it takes 430 MB (that's 430 million base pairs) to hold the genome sequence for rice so most of the time scientists examine them in chunks. Since the examination of genomes is a fairly new study (rice, for example, was sequenced in 2002) much attention is given to identifying different genes and their functions, or how a gene copies itself.

In comparison, Jiang explained, although Pack-MULEs were initially reported about 20 years ago, they didn't seem too significant. It just seemed like in a given chunk, there weren't too many of them.

Except Jiang was in the lab of Susan Wessler at the University of Georgia, a distinguished research professor who studies transposable elements. Jiang said Wessler directs the research of the lab, but meanwhile encourages people to develop their own interests and approaches. In this way, students and post docs can explore their maximum potential.

So Jiang allowed herself to get a little sentimental. The first Pack-MULE she found in a piece of rice sequence was lugging around the gene that triggers cold responses in a plant.

In 1998, MSU molecular geneticist Michael Thomashow and his associate found that increasing a plant's expression of a specific regulatory gene helps throw the plant into cold-coping mode, beefing up its defenses against freezing

Contact: Ning Jiang
Michigan State University

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