Flying Mammals and a New Jumping Gene

Within our DNA are the remains of thousands, maybe millions, of genetic nomads. They once roamed free through the landscape of our genomes; now most are silenced and still, unable to move. These are the ‘jumping genes’, or ‘transposable elements’ to give them their proper name; curious stretches of mobile DNA. Almost 50% of our DNA is made of these remnants. We see them in virtually all organisms, from bacteria, insects and fish all the way through to us humans. In mammals the only active jumping genes we’ve seen are a type called retro-transposons, which scatter copies of themselves throughout genomes. Now a new DNA sequence for a different type of jumping gene, the first active example of its kind ever to be seen in a mammal, has been spotted jumping around in the genome of the brown bat.

A dried up celibate kleptomaniac

If there’s one thing that biologists agree on, it’s that sex is good. Really good*. Huge amounts of time and energy are invested in it. Well, alas, not so much in the act per se, as much as in finding a way to have sex; to tempt a mate or dispatch a rival. But is it really worth the ego busting knock-backs, the frustration, the time and energy? One quirky animal certainly doesn’t think so; it’s had a dry patch on a geological timescale. For the last 80 million years or so a small pond and fresh water dwelling animal called a bdelloid rotifer has done away with sex, and males, entirely. How has it managed for so long without sex? Simple. It steals.

Finding the un-natural in the lab…

Taming the power of the immune system in the lab wasn’t easy. For a start, it was a mystery how we have so many different antibodies, millions at any one time. But if it’s one gene per protein, and we only had something like 30,000 genes, how could we have millions of different antibodies? Understanding this problem was the key that unlocked one way to make antibodies against targets that we select. We can use them as tools in the lab, or to treat disease—therapeutic antibodies. Chances are you may know someone who has, or is, using them; if they have Crohn’s disease for example. Just finding antibodies that stick to a target—some unique bump, crevice or corner on a virus, for example—isn’t enough. The next step is to find out if they do something useful. They may stick but not prevent infection, or not activate some receptor on a ...(Read More)