Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't 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.

Similar stories

How to use the science of the body clock to improve our sleep and health

Professor Russell Foster has written a new book about circadian neuroscience which is published by Penguin this week. This book review by Jacqueline Pumphrey was first published on the University of Oxford website.

NICE recommends offering app-based treatment for people with insomnia instead of sleeping pills

Hundreds of thousands of people suffering from insomnia who would usually be prescribed sleeping pills could be offered an app-based treatment programme instead, NICE has said.

New Study Shows Simvastatin Can Change the Way People Experience Certain Emotions

This new study examines the effects of simvastatin on emotional processing, reward learning, verbal memory, and inflammation.

Developmental dynamics of the neural crest–mesenchymal axis in creating the thymic microenvironment

A new paper from researchers at the Department of Paediatrics and the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences has shown that fibroblasts in the thymus, often considered simply as dull “structural” cells, are much more complex than previously thought.

Oxford researchers part of major UK initiative to understand chronic pain

Oxford pain researchers are playing a major role in a new multi-million pound research programme launched by a consortium of funders, including UKRI, Versus Arthritis, Eli Lilly and the Medical Research Foundation.