Nature Journal Club

Manyuan Long

University of Chicago, Illinois, USA

An evolutionary geneticist is surprised by genes of unknown origin.

I once thought that, like us, every gene must have a mother. But recent work has identified some genes that seem to have no genetic ancestry. These ‘motherless’ genes pose a new challenge to understanding the molecular mechanisms and evolutionary forces that shape our DNA. This isn’t the first time we’ve had to revise our ideas about gene evolution.

About 40 years ago, geneticist Susumu Ohno proposed that new genes originate when an existing gene duplicates, then one of the copies evolves a new function. Working with Chuck Langley in the early 1990s, I had the luck to discover a gene in flies that added another strand to Ohno’s story. The gene, named Jingwei, is a chimaera that formed through the combination of two existing genes.

Since then, researchers have identified many other ‘new’ genes assembled from unrelated genes and mobile DNA elements. Often the sequences’ origins can be identified. When they can’t, researchers have simply assumed that subsequent evolution has masked the relationship of the gene to its ancestral sequences.

But this is unlikely to be the case for hydra, a gene found recently in Drosophila melanogaster and closely related species (S.-T. Chen et al. PLoS Genet. 3, e107; 2007). No homologous sequences are found in a species that diverged from those carrying hydra only 13 million years ago — too recently for mutations to have obscured any related sequences. This implies that hydra arose de novo.

Another group has found a further 16 de novo genes in flies, which they propose evolved from non-coding DNA (D. J. Begun et al. Genetics 176, 1131–1137; 2007 and M. T. Levine et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 9935–9939; 2006). These genes beg further study: what initiated their formation?

Editor’s Note, the entry previously misspelled the name of the author’s institution. Nature regrets the error.

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