Researchers have found a bacterial mechanism that works like a bank, safeguarding the most valuable positions in secure safes.
Molecular biologists have found that our bodies could work in a similar way to banks, with the cells within our body prioritising which genes they guard most closely, protecting important genes from random mutation and effectively reducing the risk of self-destruction.
The research has been conducted by molecular biologists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), and is thought to provide an answer to a question that has been under debate for half a century and provide insights into how disease-causing mutations arise and pathogens evolve.
Nicholas Luscombe, who led the research at EMBL-EBI, said: “We discovered that there must be a molecular mechanism that preferentially protects certain areas of the genome over others.
"If we can identify the proteins involved and uncover how this works, we will be even closer to understanding how mutations that lead to diseases like cancer can be prevented.”
Mutations are the reason each of us is unique, but they also have a darker side. Gene mutations in a tumour-suppressing gene, for example, can render the gene useless and therefore ineffective. In this way, some genes require protection from gene mutations.
For a long time scientists pondered how cells protect these genes. Protecting all genes from mutation would be like depositing more money than there is vaults at the bank, and so the cells must prioritise which genes are the most important.
Iñigo Martincorena, a PhD student in Luscombe’s lab, has now found that cells evolved a ‘risk management’ strategy to address this issue. He said: “Our observations suggest these bacteria have evolved a clever mechanism to control the rate of evolution in crucial areas of the genome.”
This is a major advance on the previous assumption that mutations occur randomly, and that selection cleans them up. Mr Martincorena concludes: “But what we see here suggests that genomes have developed mechanisms to avoid mutations in regions that are more valuable than others.”