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Where 'jumping genes' fear to tread

Scientists from the University of Queensland report in the journal Genome Research that large segments of the human genome are conspicuously devoid of ubiquitous mobile DNA elements called transposons. The locations of these regions are highly conserved among mammalian species and are enriched in genes crucial for the regulation of developmental processes.

Transposons, often called "jumping genes," are DNA sequences that have the capacity to move from one chromosomal site to another. More than three million copies of transposons have accumulated in humans throughout the course of evolution and now comprise an estimated 45% of the total DNA content in the human genome.

These mobile genetic elements are scattered throughout the human genome separated, on average, by only 500 base pairs. But Dr. John Mattick's laboratory at the University of Queensland, Australia, identified long tracks of genomic segments (greater than 10 kilobases in length) that lack transposable elements. His team identified 860 such sequences in humans, 993 in mice, and 559 in opossums. They named these segments TFRs, or transposon-free regions.

"Strikingly," says Mattick, "many TFRs in the human genome occur in the same position in the mouse and opossum genomes, despite the fact that transposons entered each lineage independently, after each species diverged from a common ancestor. It appears that many TFRs are evolutionarily conserved features that existed prior to and have been largely maintained since the divergence of eutherian mammals and marsupials approximately 170 million years ago."

The opossum was chosen for inclusion in the analysis because it is a marsupial that has a similar load of transposable elements compared to mice and humans but is evolutionarily distant from the two species. In contrast, the genomes of chicken and fish, which diverged from humans more than 300 million years ago, do not have a significant density of transposons.
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Contact: Maria Smit
smit@cshl.edu
516-422-4013
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
4-Jan-2006


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