The DNA in our cells provide the instructions to make proteins, the workhorses of our body. Yet less than 2% of the 3 billion base pairs (the structural units of DNA) in each of our cells are actually involved in protein production. The rest, termed non-coding DNA for not being involved in protein production, has roles in regulating genetic activity, but, largely, these genetic regions have remained a mystery causing some to mis-characterize it as “junk” DNA.
One of the largest components of these “junk” DNA regions are transposons, which make up 50% of the genome. Transposons are variable length DNA segments that are able to duplicate and re-insert themselves into different locations of the genome which is why they’re often called “jumping genes”.
Transposons have been implicated in diseases like cancer because of their ability to disrupt normal gene function depending on where the transposon inserts itself. Now, a CIRM-funded study in Miguel Ramalho-Santos’ laboratory at UCSF has found a developmental function for transposons in the dividing embryo. The report was published today in the Journal Cell.
Of the transposons identified in humans, LINE1 is the most common, composing 24% of the entire human genome. Many investigators in the field had observed that LINE1 is highly expressed in embryonic stem cells, which seemed paradoxical given that these pieces of DNA were previously thought to be either inert or harmful. Because this DNA was present at such high levels, the investigators decided to eliminate it from fertilized mouse embryos at the two-cell stage and observe how this affected development.
To their surprise, they found that the embryo was not able to progress beyond this stage. Further investigation revealed that LINE1, along with other proteins, is responsible for turning off the genetic program that maintains the two-cell state, thus allowing the embryo to further divide and develop.
Dr. Ramalho-Santos believes that this is a fine-tuned mechanism to ensure that the early stages of develop progress successfully. Because there are so many copies of LINE1 in the genome, even if one is not functional, it is likely that there will be functional back up, an important factor in ensuring early mistakes in embryo development do not occur.
In a press release, Dr. Ramalho-Santos states:
“We now think these early embryos are playing with fire but in a very calculated way. This could be a very robust mechanism for regulating development…I’m personally excited to continue exploring novel functions of these elements in development and disease.”