Fast-Mutating DNA Sequences Shape Early Development; Guided Evolution of Uniquely Human Traits
What does it mean to be human? According to scientists the key lies, ultimately, in the billions of lines of genetic code that comprise the human genome. The problem, however, has been deciphering that code. But now, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes have discovered how the activation of specific stretches of DNA control the development of uniquely human characteristics — and tell an intriguing story about the evolution of our species.
In the latest issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers in the laboratory of Gladstone Investigator Katherine Pollard, PhD, use the latest sequencing and bioinformatics tools to find genomic regions that guide the development of human-specific characteristics. These results offer new clues as to how the activation of similar stretches of DNA — shared between two species — can sometimes result in vastly different outcomes.
"Advances in DNA sequencing and supercomputing have given us the power to understand evolution at a level of detail that just a few years ago would have been impossible," said Dr. Pollard, who is also a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco’s (UCSF’s) Institute for Human Genetics. "In this study, we found stretches of DNA that evolved much more quickly than others. We believe that these fast-evolving stretches were crucial to our human ancestors becoming distinct from our closest primate relatives."
These stretches are called human accelerated regions, or HARs, so-called because they mutate at a relatively fast rate. In addition, the majority of HARs don’t appear to encode specific genes. The research team hypothesized that HARs instead acted as “enhancers,” controlling when and for how long certain genes were switched on during embryonic development. Through experiments in embryonic animal models, combined with powerful computational genomics analyses, the research team identified more than 2,600 HARs. Then, they created a program called EnhancerFinder to whittle down that list to just the HARs were likely to be enhancers.