Cool scientific discoveries: Jumping genes

When it comes to important scientific discoveries, there isn’t any lack of it. However, not all discoveries reach the public eye, partly because they lack media penetration. In other words they are not interesting enough. The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their discovery of the Higgs particle, also known as the God particle in the media. This discovery received much attention in the media, which it clearly deserved. But with the name “the God particle” obviously doesn’t hurt.

One important discovery that has not received so much attention outside the scientific community but has had huge impact on evolution and the development of many diseases, was the discovery of the “jumping genes” also known as transposons. Discovered in the late 1940s by Barbara McClintock, transposons are DNA segments that can “jump” from one location in the DNA molecule to another location. See video below on how transposons “jump”.

No matter where in the DNA the transposon ends up, transposons will always cause mutations when they jump. If they end up in a gene, that gene might be rendered dysfunctional. This could potentially result in a genetic disorder such as cancer. Though mutations might sound bad, transposons generate genetic variation, which is desirable from an evolutionary standpoint. Given the fact that they cause mutations, scientists are now using transposons as a tool to identify cancer genes. One such transposon was found in salmon DNA. This transposon had been immobile for 15 million years, but in 1997 scientists managed to re-activate it and made it mobile again. The transposon was given the name Sleeping Beauty. When scientists introduced the Sleeping Beauty transposon into human cells, it inserted itself into human DNA. Since this causes gene mutations, the behavior of the cell changed in a way that resembled a cancer cell. The DNA of these cells could then be analyzed to see which genes contained Sleeping Beauty and therefore indicate to be cancer genes. See video below.

At the time, the discovery of transposons didn’t receive so much appreciation by the scientific community. But in 1983, Barbara McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. Though she “only” discovered these transposons, today we know what huge impact they have on biology and how they can help us to fight cancer.


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