Thursday, October 12, 2006

 

The Dark Side of DNA : 'Genes in Conflict' (Review)

An American Scientist book review: Although many of us have gotten used to the idea that our bodies serve the needs of a variety of viruses, bacteria, mites and other parasitic species, it comes as a surprise to most people when they hear that their bodies are also hosting alien parasitic DNA.

Analysis of output from the Human Genome Project makes it clear that just one form of such alien DNA, transposons, makes up about 50 percent of our genome. Every time one of your cells divides, it uses time and energy to replicate this parasitic DNA. There is even evidence that the size of your cells is set to accommodate this extra genetic load. In return, this type of DNA typically does nothing useful for you or any of the other organisms it inhabits.

So why do humans and the vast majority of other species serve as homes for parasitic DNA? This is one of many questions about selfish genetic elements that Austin Burt (homepage) and Robert Trivers (homepage) address in their scholarly, thought-provoking new book, Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements (Amazon UK | US). As can be gleaned from the title, the authors don't envision an easy alliance between selfish genes and the rest of the genome. [Science, Evolution]
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Chapter outlines of Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements.

Reviewed by Fred Gould (homepage) who is a professor in the departments of entomology and genetics at North Carolina State University.

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