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UA Study Suggests Some ‘Jumping Genes’ Not Sufficiently Locked Down

Keith Maggert of the UA College of Medicine Department of Cellular & Molecular Medicine and the UA Cancer Center.
Photo: Kelvin Pond.
Keith Maggert of the UA College of Medicine Department of Cellular & Molecular Medicine and the UA Cancer Center.

A large proportion of the human genome contains potentially dangerous DNA sequences called transposable elements, or transposons. Now, research from the University of Arizona has found flaws in the mechanisms that keep them in check.

The study appears in the journal PNAS.

Transposons, sometimes called "jumping genes," can change their positions within a genome, causing errors and mutations linked to diseases such as cancers.

For protection, cells silence these elements using a dense material called heterochromatin.

But the UA team's research into fruit flies — and genes borrowed from yeast, jellyfish and coral — shows that this heterochromatin "seal" can fail and allow the jumping genes to be expressed.

"Now it turns out that it makes mistakes much more frequently than we thought. And it's good at covering its tracks, because it can recover. And so it doesn't leave much evidence of its failing," said co-author Keith Maggert of the UA College of Medicine Department of Cellular & Molecular Medicine and the UA Cancer Center.

More research is needed to confirm connections between these failures and the emergence of diseases.

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Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.