Life can be so intricate and novel that even a single cell can pack a few surprises, according to a study led by Princeton University researchers. The pond-dwelling, single-celled organism Oxytricha trifallax (image) has the remarkable ability to break its own DNA into nearly a quarter-million pieces and rapidly reassemble those pieces when it's time to mate, the researchers reported online on August 28, 2014 in Cell. The organism internally stores its genome as thousands of scrambled, encrypted gene pieces. Upon mating with another of its kind, the organism rummages through these jumbled genes and DNA segments to piece together more than 225,000 tiny strands of DNA. This all happens in about 60 hours. The organism's ability to take apart and quickly reassemble its own genes is unusually elaborate for any form of life, explained senior author Dr. Laura Landweber, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. That such intricacy exists in a seemingly simple organism accentuates the "true diversity of life on our planet," she said. "It's one of nature's early attempts to become more complex despite staying small in the sense of being unicellular," Dr. Landweber said. "There are other examples of genomic jigsaw puzzles, but this one is a leader in terms of complexity. People might think that pond-dwelling organisms would be simple, but this shows how complex life can be, that it can reassemble all the building blocks of chromosomes." From a practical standpoint, Oxytricha is a model organism that could provide a template for understanding how chromosomes in more complex animals such as humans break apart and reassemble, as can happen during the onset of cancer, Dr. Landweber said.
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