Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we will assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you will not see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

A new study by Waddell Group Neuroscientists at the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour shows that mobile genetic elements that were active in the genomes of our ancestors could be closely linked to important functions in our brain and might help diversify our behaviour, cognition and emotions.

© Gil Costa (www.gilcosta.com)

The human genome contains the instructions to build and maintain all cells in our body. We inherit this “cell manual” from our parents and pass it on to our children. Errors in this manual can change cell properties and trigger diseases, including cancer. More than half of our genome is made up of ‘junk’ DNA, a large part of which is comprised of potentially mobile pieces called transposons, or “jumping genes”, which are believed to have evolved from ancient viruses. Transposons can be viewed as “loose pages” within our cell manual because they can change their position, and their distribution differs within each person’s genome. Transposons inserted in genes can disrupt their function and impair important cell processes. However, more recently it has been proposed that transposons might also play more beneficial roles in our body, such as in the communication between different cells in our brains.

Researchers in the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour in Oxford have now used state-of-the-art single-cell sequencing on the brains of fruit flies, a well-established model organism in neuroscience, to investigate transposon activity in the brain at an unprecedented level of detail. This new analysis revealed that transposons were not uniformly active throughout the entire brain of flies, but rather showed highly distinct patterns of expression. Moreover, these patterns were tightly linked to genes located near transposons. This indicates that transposons might play an important altruistic role in our body.

To further investigate, lead author Dr Christoph Treiber created new software tools for an in-depth analysis of transposon expression. Together with Professor Scott Waddell, Dr Treiber found that segments of transposons were frequently parts of messenger RNAs from neural genes, which suggests these “jumping genes” may frequently alter neural function. Transposons changed genes which have known roles in a wide range of properties and functions of brain cells, including the sleep-wake cycle and the formation of memories. Crucially, individual transposons created many additional versions of these genes that differed between animals. Dr Treiber said: “We know that animal genomes are selfish and changes that are not beneficial often don’t prevail. Since transposons are parts of hundreds of genes in every fly strain that we looked at, we think these physical links likely represent an advantage for the fly.”

“We now want to understand the impact of these new alleles on the behaviour of individual animals. Transposons might broaden the range of neuronal function in a fly population, which in turn could enable a few individuals to react more creatively in challenging situations. Also, our preliminary analyses show that transposons might play a similar role in our brain. Since every person has a unique transposon “fingerprint”, our findings could be relevant to the need to personalise pharmacological treatments for patients with neurological conditions.”

The full paper “Transposon expression in the Drosophila brain is driven by neighboring genes and diversifies the neural transcriptome” is published in Genome Research.

An interview with Dr Treiber is available to read in Technology Networks.

The story is also reported on the University of Oxford website.

Similar stories

Researcher publishes children's book of the brain

Postdoctoral Publication

Betina Ip, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow based in NDCN, formerly a postdoctoral research scientist in DPAG, has written a book for children: The Usborne Book of the Brain

Drug trial that could improve respiratory recovery from COVID-19 now underway

Research

A clinical trial has commenced this week to test whether a drug called almitrine can help people who are seriously ill with COVID-19 to recover from the disease.

Same genome, different worlds: How a similar brain causes sexually dimorphic behaviours

CNCB Goodwin Group News Publication Research

A new paper from the Goodwin group based in DPAG's Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour has shown how males and females are programmed differently in terms of sex.

New form of gift wrap drives male reproductive success

Publication Research Wilson Group News

The transfer of complex mixtures of signals and nutrients between individuals is a key step in several biologically important events in our lives, such as breastfeeding and sexual intercourse. However, we know relatively little about the ways in which the molecular gifts involved are packaged to ensure their successful delivery to the recipient.

Just over half of British Indians would take COVID vaccine

EDI News Outreach Postdoctoral Publication Research Riley Group News

University of Oxford researchers from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG) and the Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with The 1928 Institute, have published a major new study on the impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s largest BME population.