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Home | Pregnancy Timeline | News Alerts | News Archive June 10, 2013

 
Umbrea gene essential to cell division

Above, cell division video recorded off of a microscope

On the left, normal cell division in a fruit fly cell.
On the right, a cell without the Umbrea gene has failed
to divide normally, and will die.

Credit: Photos courtesy Barbara Mellone






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Young genes essential for life

Researchers now know how a relatively young gene acquired a new function and became essential to an organism's life.

Using a combination of techniques, including phylogenetics, molecular biology, and video microscopy, scientists at the University of Conneticut have found that a novel essential gene in fruit flies is only 15 million years old. Yet this gene has acquired a job so important that the flies can't live without it.

The study is published in the June 6 edition of Science.

"The majority of these genes are not going to acquire essential functions" of genes that, like the one they studied, have been duplicated, says Barbara Mellone, assistant professor of molecular and cell biology in UConn's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "But the interaction network is completely rewired for this gene."


Mellone and her colleagues at the University of Washington, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and the University of Munich traced the evolutionary steps by which the gene, known as Umbrea, from the well-known fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has acquired its essential role.

The Umbrea gene is vital to chromosome segregation, the process by which cells split their genetic material during cell division in order to generate more cells, tissues, and organisms.


Mellone: "The genus Drosophila offers an unprecedented system in which to study gene evolution because of its' detailed evolutionary and genomic data. Learning about how new genes acquire new functions is crucial to understanding how whole genomes undergo functional innovations, which are needed for new traits to appear in populations so that natural selection can occur."


What puzzled the scientists is that Umbrea plays the role of strengthening the connections between chromosomes, making sure that chromosome segregation happens correctly. And although it is also present in other species of fruit fly, it's not essential in all of them. How then could a gene that has only been around for a fraction of this species' history have acquired such an essential role?


To understand this paradox, researchers used gene sequencing to understand the gene's history and captured video of cells, with Umbrea removed, dividing under a microscope in Mellone's laboratory. Their methods showed that though Umbrea was lost in some of the species, in one species—Drosophila melanogaster—cells without it failed to segregate chromosomes correctly, confirming its critical role.

Their research also showed several changes leading to Umbrea's current status. First, it lost its previous, nonessential function. Then a network of proteins became completely rewired in order to interacts with Umbrea. And then, it acquired new "tail" domains at its' ends allowing it to relocate to the centromere, a structure present on all chromosomes in all species, and necessary for genome segregation during cell division.

"This gene emerged and wasn't going either way, toward or away from essential function," says Mellone. "Then something happened elsewhere to help make it essential."


The researchers argue that although most duplicated genes either become non-functional or are simply lost, keeping some of them around might benefit cells in the long run.

"Centromere proteins experience rapid evolution in many organisms, including humans, in a constant 'arms race' that exists to maintain the equal segregation of genetic traits," says Mellone.

So if the genes involved in genome partitioning are evolving so fast, then perhaps it's a good idea to keep other, nonfunctional genes around – those that can acquire new essential functions when necessary.


The scientists suggest that this could change the way scientists think about other biological processes that may require recurrent genetic innovation to adapt to new challenges.

Original press release: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-06/uoc-ssh060613.php