The PIWI pathway only does so much to keep transposons in check
We like to think of evolution as a fine-tuning process, one that whittles away genetic redundancies. The only problem is, we are not fine-tuned machines. Our bodies are chock-full of parts that either don't work anymore or are so buggy that our biology has Macgyvered a way to make it work.
Take our DNA. No, seriously, take our DNA. It's mostly garbage anyways. Fifty percent of our genome is comprised of genetic parasites, called transposable elements or transposons, that usually lie dormant. When they are allowed to move around the genome, they can wreak havoc on our genes. These bundles of rogue DNA sequences, nicknamed jumping genes, can hop into an essential gene and interrupt it, leading to a variety of mutations that cause conditions like infertility.
Our reproductive cells, called germ cells, are particularly sensitive to transposons, so they rely on a system called the PIWI pathway to keep the transposons in check. Scientists have long wondered how the pathway works and why, despite its checks and balances, do transposons still make up such a large portion of our genome. Understanding the system would help scientists demystify human infertility and other diseases that result when transposons run amok.
Brandeis biology professor Nelson Lau and his lab recently published two studies on the PIWI pathway, short for P-element Induced Wimpy testis. When the pathway is blocked in fruit flies, it results in small, infertile testes and ovaries.
The pathway's main weapons against transposons are PIWI proteins and small RNA molecules called piRNAs.
Think of PIWI proteins as transposon bounty hunters and piRNAs as the wanted posters that provide vital information about the outlaw DNA. But the piRNAs don't offer a complete picture. "Germ cells do something very weird by shredding that wanted poster into a lot of small pieces," Lau says. "Instead of carrying the whole poster, piRNAs carry what might look like part of a nose, half of an eye or a sliver of a lip."
Just as a shredded wanted poster could match many faces, those small piRNAs could match many good genes, so how do PIWI proteins track down and silence transposons without silencing good genes in the process?
In a study published in RNA, Lau and his team, led by graduate student Josef Clark and former technician Christina Post, observed that PIWI proteins are careful. The proteins waited until they had a good composite picture from enough piRNAs before they clamped down on the transposon
But that doesn't mean the system is flawless. Far from it, Lau's team discovered.
In a second study published in Genome Research, Lau and postdocs Yuliya Sytnikova, Reazur Rahman and bioinformatician Gung-wei Chirn observed new transposable elements in the fruit fly cells moving to different areas of the genome, affecting nearby genes. "We all knew that the PIWI pathway was continuously active, so the conventional wisdom was that it was doing a decent job keeping these transposons under wraps," Lau says. "We stood corrected."
It turns out transposons are not so easily subdued. Many slipped past the PIWI system, landing on new genome spots and impacting surrounding genes. Some transposons could even make disguises -- long non-coding RNAs that Lau thinks are meant to trick the PIWI proteins.
This may explain why transposons continue to make up such a large part of our genome, Lau says. "The PIWI pathway works just well enough to allow our germ cells to develop, but not well enough to keep all of the transposons fully redacted," he says.
This may seem an ineffective way to protect our genome -- our body's most important artifact -- but there may be a method in PIWI's madness. After all, transposons have evolved with every member of the animal kingdom, from sponges to humans -- there must be some reason they're tolerated.
Perhaps, Lau says, a bit of genetic mischief, in the right places, is good. It ensures genetic variation and diversity, which is important for a species to reproduce and evolve.
Like so much of our biology, it's not pretty but it is effective -- for the most part.
Leah Burrows | EurekAlert!
Bolstering fat cells offers potential new leukemia treatment
17.10.2017 | McMaster University
Ocean atmosphere rife with microbes
17.10.2017 | King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST)
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
17.10.2017 | Life Sciences
17.10.2017 | Life Sciences
17.10.2017 | Earth Sciences