Cross species transfer of genes has driven evolution

July 08, 2018

Far from just being the product of our parents, University of Adelaide scientists have shown that widespread transfer of genes between species has radically changed the genomes of today's mammals, and been an important driver of evolution.

In the world's largest study of so-called "jumping genes", the researchers have traced two particular jumping genes across 759 species of plants, animals and fungi. These jumping genes are actually small pieces of DNA that can copy themselves throughout a genome and are known as transposable elements.

They have found that cross-species transfers, even between plants and animals, have occurred frequently throughout evolution.

Both of the transposable elements they traced - L1 and BovB - entered mammals as foreign DNA. This is the first time anyone has shown that the L1 element, important in humans, has jumped between species.

"Jumping genes, properly called retrotransposons, copy and paste themselves around genomes, and in genomes of other species. How they do this is not yet known although insects like ticks or mosquitoes or possibly viruses may be involved - it's still a big puzzle," says project leader Professor David Adelson, Director of the University of Adelaide's Bioinformatics Hub.

"This process is called horizontal transfer, differing from the normal parent-offspring transfer, and it's had an enormous impact on mammalian evolution."

For example, Professor Adelson says, 25% of the genome of cows and sheep is derived from jumping genes.

"Think of a jumping gene as a parasite," says Professor Adelson. "What's in the DNA is not so important - it's the fact that they introduce themselves into other genomes and cause disruption of genes and how they are regulated."

Published today in the journal Genome Biology, in collaboration with the South Australian Museum, the researchers found horizontal gene transfer was much more widespread than had been thought.

"L1 elements were thought to be inherited only from parent to offspring," says lead author Dr Atma Ivancevic, postdoctoral researcher in the University of Adelaide's Medical School. "Most studies have only looked at a handful of species and found no evidence of transfer. We looked at as many species as we could."

L1 elements in humans have been associated with cancer and neurological disorders. The researchers say that understanding the inheritance of this element is important for understanding the evolution of diseases.

The researchers found L1s are abundant in plants and animals, although only appearing sporadically in fungi. But the most surprising result was the lack of L1s in two key mammal species - the Australian monotremes (platypus and echidna) - showing that the gene entered the mammalian evolutionary pathway after the divergence from monotremes.

"We think the entry of L1s into the mammalian genome was a key driver of the rapid evolution of mammals over the past 100 million years," says Professor Adelson.

The team also looked at the transfer of BovB elements between species. BovB is a much younger jumping gene: it was first discovered in cows, but has since been shown to jump between a bizarre array of animals including reptiles, elephants and marsupials. Earlier research, led by Professor Adelson, found that ticks were the most likely facilitators of cross-species BovB transfer.

The new research extended the analysis to find that BovB has jumped even more widely than previously anticipated. BovB has transferred at least twice between frogs and bats, and new potential vector species include bed bugs, leeches and locusts.

The team believes that studying insect species will help find more evidence of cross-species transfer. They also aim to study other jumping genes and explore the possibility of aquatic vectors, such as sea worms and nematodes.

"Even though our recent work involved the analysis of genomes from over 750 species, we have only begun to scratch the surface of horizontal gene transfer," says Professor Adelson. "There are many more species to investigate and other types of jumping genes."
-end-
Media Contact:

Dr Atma Ivancevic, Postdoctoral researcher, Adelaide Medical School, University of Adelaide. Mobile: +61 (0)414 412 668, atma.ivancevic@adelaide.edu.au

Professor David Adelson (available from Monday 9 July), Director, Bioinformatics Hub, University of Adelaide. Phone: +61(8) 8313 7555, Mobile: +61 (0) 459 807 714, david.adelson@adelaide.edu.au

Robyn Mills, Media Officer, University of Adelaide. Phone: +61 (0)8 8313 6341, Mobile: +61 (0)410 689 084, robyn.mills@adelaide.edu.au

University of Adelaide

Related DNA Articles from Brightsurf:

A new twist on DNA origami
A team* of scientists from ASU and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) led by Hao Yan, ASU's Milton Glick Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, and director of the ASU Biodesign Institute's Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, has just announced the creation of a new type of meta-DNA structures that will open up the fields of optoelectronics (including information storage and encryption) as well as synthetic biology.

Solving a DNA mystery
''A watched pot never boils,'' as the saying goes, but that was not the case for UC Santa Barbara researchers watching a ''pot'' of liquids formed from DNA.

Junk DNA might be really, really useful for biocomputing
When you don't understand how things work, it's not unusual to think of them as just plain old junk.

Designing DNA from scratch: Engineering the functions of micrometer-sized DNA droplets
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) have constructed ''DNA droplets'' comprising designed DNA nanostructures.

Does DNA in the water tell us how many fish are there?
Researchers have developed a new non-invasive method to count individual fish by measuring the concentration of environmental DNA in the water, which could be applied for quantitative monitoring of aquatic ecosystems.

Zigzag DNA
How the cell organizes DNA into tightly packed chromosomes. Nature publication by Delft University of Technology and EMBL Heidelberg.

Scientists now know what DNA's chaperone looks like
Researchers have discovered the structure of the FACT protein -- a mysterious protein central to the functioning of DNA.

DNA is like everything else: it's not what you have, but how you use it
A new paradigm for reading out genetic information in DNA is described by Dr.

A new spin on DNA
For decades, researchers have chased ways to study biological machines.

From face to DNA: New method aims to improve match between DNA sample and face database
Predicting what someone's face looks like based on a DNA sample remains a hard nut to crack for science.

Read More: DNA News and DNA Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.