University of Utah scientists have shown how evolution works by reversing the process, reconstructing a 530-million-year-old gene by combining key portions of two modern mouse genes that descended from the archaic gene.
"It provides further evidence at the molecular level of how evolution has occurred and is occurring, and thus makes the process less mysterious," says Mario Capecchi, distinguished professor and co-chairman of human genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
"We've shown some of the elements involved in the process of evolution by reversing this process and reconstructing a gene that later became two genes," he adds.
The study by Capecchi and postdoctoral fellow Petr Tvrdik was set for publication Monday, Aug. 7 in the August 2006 issue of the journal Developmental Cell.
The process of one gene splitting into multiple genes, which then mutate, "has occurred many times in evolution, but no one has put it back together again," Tvrdik says. "We are first to reconstruct an ancient gene. We have proven that from two specialized modern genes, we can reconstruct the ancient gene they split off from. It illuminates the mechanisms and processes that evolution uses, and tells us more about how Mother Nature engineers life."
The ability to reconstruct an ancient gene from descendant genes also raises the possibility of a new type of gene therapy, in which a portion of a related gene could be inserted into a disease-causing mutant gene to restore its normal function and cure the disease, Capecchi and Tvrdik say.
Genes that Divided are Now Reunited
The study involved what are known as Hox genes, which are like orchestra conductors directing the actions of other genes during development of an animal embryo.
Until sometime between 530 million and 480 million years ago, early animals had 13 Hox g
Contact: Lee Siegel
University of Utah Health Sciences Center