Reproductive cells, such as an egg and sperm, join to form stem cells that can mature into any tissue type. But how do reproductive cells arise? We humans are born with all of the reproductive cells that we will ever produce. But in plants things are very different. They first generate mature, adult cells and only later "reprogram" some of them to produce eggs and sperm. For a plant to create reproductive cells, it must first erase a key code, a series of tags attached to DNA across the genome known as epigenetic marks. These marks distinguish active and inactive genes. But the marks serve another critical role. They keep a host of damaging transposons, or "jumping genes," inactive. As the cell wipes away the epigenetic code, it activates transposons, placing the newly formed reproductive cell in great danger of sustaining genetic damage. On March 16, 2014, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York led by Professor and HHMI Investigator Dr. Robert Martienssen announce the discovery of a pathway that helps to keep transposons inactive even when the epigenetic code is erased. "Jumping genes" were first identified more than 50 years ago at CSHL by Nobel-prize-winning researcher Dr. Barbara McClintock. Subsequent study revealed that jumping genes (or transposable elements) are long, repetitive stretches of DNA. They resemble remnants of ancient viruses that have inserted themselves into their host DNA. When active, transposons copy themselves and jump around in the genome. They can insert themselves right in the middle of genes, thus interrupting them. Scientists have found that more than 50% of the human genome is made up of transposons. Remarkably, in plants, up to 90% of the genome is composed of these repetitive sequences.
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