News

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

A previously unappreciated interaction in the genome turns out to have possibly been one of the driving forces in the emergence of advanced life, billions of years ago.

This discovery began with a curiosity for retrotransposons, known as “jumping genes,” which are DNA sequences that copy and paste themselves within the genome, multiplying rapidly. Nearly half of the human genome is made up of retrotransposons, but bacteria hardly have them at all.

Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund Endowed Chair of Physics and leader of the Biocomplexity research theme at the IGB, and Thomas Kuhlman, a former physics professor at Illinois who is now at University of California, Riverside, wondered why this is.“We thought a really simple thing to try was to just take one (retrotransposon) out of my genome and put it into the bacteria just to see what would happen,” Kuhlman said. “And it turned out to be really quite interesting.”

  • In the Media
  • Biological Physics

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.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

“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.

  • Accolades
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics
  • Astrophysics/Cosmology

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.