He suspects that when a transposon is plopped down in a region where it wasn't needed, it slowly accumulated mutations until it no longer resembled its original sequence. The genome is littered with these decaying transposons. When a transposon dropped into a location where it was useful, however, it held on to much of the original sequence, making it possible for Bejerano to pick out.
In past work, Bejerano and his co-workers had identified a handful of transposons that seemed to regulate nearby genes. However, it wasn't clear how common the phenomenon might be. "Now we've shown that transposons may be a major vehicle for evolutionary novelty," he said.
The paper's first author, Craig Lowe, a graduate student in Haussler's lab at UC-Santa Cruz, said finding the transposons was just the first step. "Now we are trying to nail down exactly what the elements are doing," he said.
Bejerano's work wouldn't have been possible without two things that became available over the past few years: the complete gene sequence of many vertebrate species, and fast computers running sophisticated new genetic analysis software. "Right now it's like being a kid in a candy warehouse," Bejerano said. Computer-savvy biologists have the tools to ask questions about how genes and chromosomes evolve and change, questions that just a few years ago were unanswerable.
Bejerano and his colleagues aren't the first to suggest that transposons play a role in regulating nearby genes. In fact, Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, PhD, who first discovered transposons, proposed in 1956 that they could help determine the timing for when nearby genes turn on and off.