Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies may have found one explanation for the puzzling variety in brain organization and function: mobile elements, pieces of DNA that can jump from one place in the genome to another, randomly changing the genetic information in single brain cells. If enough of these jumps occur, they could allow individual brains to develop in distinctly different ways.I find this fascinating, but to be honest, I really don't understand how it works. How is it that these jumping genes only occur in neuronal precursor cells? How exactly do these jumping genes affect the neuronal cells? I would assume that this process would cause a lot of neuron cells to not work at all as crucial genes are rendered inoperable, but I can't see how this would lead to a better functioning brain. Hopefully future research will clear these questions up.
Precursor cells in the embryonic brain, which mature into neurons, look and act more or less the same. Yet, these precursors ultimately give rise to a panoply of nerve cells that are enormously diverse in form and function and together form the brain. Identifying the mechanisms that lead to this diversification has been a longstanding challenge. “People have speculated that there might be a mechanism to create diversity in brain like there is in the immune system, and the immune system’s diversity is perhaps the closest analogy we have,” says Gage.
Transposable L1 elements, or “jumping genes” as they are often called, make up 17 percent of our genomic DNA but very little is known about them. Almost all of them are marooned at a permanent spot by mutations rendering them dysfunctional, but in humans a hundred or so are free to move via a “copy and paste” mechanism. Long dismissed as useless gibberish or “junk” DNA, the transposable L1 elements were thought to be intracellular parasites or leftovers from our distant evolutionary past.
Apart from their activity in testis and ovaries, jumping L1 elements are not only unique to the adult brain but appear to happen also during early stages of the development of nerve cells. The Salk team found insertions only in neuronal precursor cells that had already made their initial commitment to becoming a neuron. Other cell types found in the brain, such as oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, were unaffected.
At least in the germ line, copies of L1s appear to plug themselves more or less randomly into the genome of their host cell. “But in neuronal progenitor cells, these mobile elements seem to look for genes expressed in neurons. We think that’s because when the cells start to differentiate the cells start to open up genes and expose their DNA to insertions,” explains co- author Alysson R. Muotri. “What we have shown for the first time is that a single insertion can mess up gene expression and influence the function of individual cells,” he adds.