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“Jumping Genes” Could Help Explain Human Individuality

August 7th 2009

Human brain cells hold an eye-opening amount of mobile elements, or “jumping genes”—genomic variability that could help explain human individuality.
By Anelise Qumerais

Human brain cells hold an eye-opening amount of mobile elements, or “jumping genes”—genomic variability that could help explain human individuality, according to recent findings published by Nature.

These “jumping genes” are small pieces of DNA that copy and paste themselves throughout the genome.

"This is a potential mechanism to create the neural diversity that makes each person unique," said Fred Gage, lead researcher of the study and a professor at Salk’s Laboratory of Genetics in California, according to a ScienceDaily report.  "The brain has 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections, but mobile pieces of DNA could give individual neurons a slightly different capacity from each other."

Besides helping scientists explain human individuality, the new findings could improve understanding of neurological disease, the researchers said.

In a previous study, the same researchers found that mobile DNA elements, called Line-1 elements, randomly copied themselves to the genome of mouse brain cells.

Mobile elements are common in organisms like plants, but were previously considered absent in mammals.

“Yet they are extremely abundant,” said Gage, according to ScienceDaily. “Approximately 50 percent of the total human genome is made up of remnants of mobile elements. If this were true junk, we would be getting rid of it.”