Junk DNA could be rewiring our brains

Transposons might play an important altruistic role in our bodies.


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The greater part of our genome comprises ‘junk’ DNA, an enormous portion of which contains possibly mobile pieces called transposons, or ‘jumping genes,’ which are accepted to have advanced from ancient viruses.

Transposons can be viewed as ‘loose pages’ within our cell manual because they can change their position, and their distribution differs within each person’s genome. A recent study has proposed that transposons might also play more beneficial roles in our bodies, such as communication between different cells in our brains.

In a new study by the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour in Oxford- using state-of-the-art single-cell sequencing on the brains of fruit flies, neuroscientists investigated Transposon activity in the brain at an unprecedented level of detail. Their investigation revealed that transposons were not uniformly active throughout the entire brain of flies but showed highly distinct expression patterns.

Besides, these examples were firmly connected to genes located near transposons. This shows that transposons may assume a significant altruistic function in our body.

Scientists also developed software for an in-depth analysis of transposon expression. They found that transposons’ segments were frequently parts of messenger RNAs from neural genes, which suggests these ‘jumping genes’ may often alter neural function. Transposons changed genes that have known roles in a wide range of brain cells’ properties and functions, including the sleep-wake cycle and the formation of memories. Crucially, individual transposons created many different versions of these genes that differed between animals.

Lead author Dr. Christoph Treiber said“We know that animal genomes are selfish and changes that are not beneficial often don’t prevail. Since transposons are parts of hundreds of genes in every fly strain that we looked at, we think these physical links likely represent an advantage for the fly.”

“We now want to understand the impact of these new alleles on the behavior of individual animals. Transposons might broaden the range of neuronal function in a fly population, which could enable a few individuals to react more creatively in challenging situations. Also, our preliminary analyses show that transposons might play a similar role in our brains. Since every person has a unique transposon ‘fingerprint’, our findings could be relevant to the need to personalize pharmacological treatments for patients with neurological conditions.”