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A common bacteria is furthering evidence that evolution is not entirely a blind process, subject to random changes in the genes, but that environmental stressors can also play a role. A NASA-funded team is the first group to design a method demonstrating how transposongs-DNA sequences that move positions within a genome-jump from place to place. The researchers saw that the jumping rate of these transposons, aptly-named "jumping genes" increases or decreases depending on factors in the environment, such as food supply.

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“Jumping genes” are ubiquitous. Every domain of life hosts these sequences of DNA that can “jump” from one position to another along a chromosome; in fact, nearly half the human genome is made up of jumping genes. Depending on their specific excision and insertion points, jumping genes can interrupt or trigger gene expression, driving genetic mutation and contributing to cell diversification. Since their discovery in the 1940s, researchers have been able to study the behavior of these jumping genes, generally known as transposons or transposable elements (TE), primarily through indirect methods that infer individual activity from bulk results.  However, such techniques are not sensitive enough to determine precisely how or why the transposons jump, and what factors trigger their activity.

Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have observed jumping gene activity in real time within living cells. The study is the collaborative effort of physics professors Thomas Kuhlman and Nigel Goldenfeld, at the Center for the Physics of Living Cells, a National Science Foundation Physics Frontiers Center.

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Thomas Kuhlman, assistant professor of physics, and Ryan Foley, assistant professor of astronomy with an affiliate appointment in physics, are among the three faculty members at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to be selected for Sloan Research Fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The two-year fellowships are awarded annually to 126 early-career scientists and scholars engaged in fundamental research, in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.