Jumping Genes kick off Speaking of Research

It may be a humble onion, but it’s got five times as much DNA in each cell as we have
– Steve Bush illustrates a key point in his talk Jumping Genes.
Thursday February 4th: BRLSI has close links with both of Bath’s universities, and tonight a new collaboration with Bath (and hopefully soon Bath Spa) University came to fruition with the first lecture in the series Speaking of Research, which gives research students a chance to speak to a public audience on their work, and gives the public a chance to find out what research students actually do.
The evening was opened by Prof Jane Millar (right), Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Bath, who reminded the audience of the importance of research at universities, none less so than Bath, which has risen in just 40 years to become one of the UK’s top 10 establishments. Then it was on to the topic of the evening presented by Steve Bush, a PhD Student who’s “worked his way up the country” from Plymouth and Exeter universities to Bath, where he’s studying transposable elements of the genome – or to give them their user-friendly name, Jumping Genes.
The challenge of Speaking of Research is to present often tightly-focussed areas of research in ways that will convince a non-specialist audience of their relevance and worth. Steve Bush certainly succeeded, with a lively (yet highly informative) tale of the mystery areas of our genetic code that break the rules on self-replication, padding out chromosomes with sequences of genetic ‘letters’ that do nothing except seek to create even more copies of themselves.
Jumping Genes are highly successful – 20% of human DNA consists of copies of just one transposable element – and can, in some circumstances, be highly damaging, inserting themselves into the middle of ‘legitimate’ genes and causing genetic diseases. Steve Bush was succesful in using a range of real-world analogies, examples and memorable facts to get his message across, explaining how ‘cut and paste’ (or ‘ectopic insertion’) is more damaging than ‘copy and paste’ because it bypasses our anti gene corruption defences. He also explained how Jumping Genes largely solve the mystery of why so many species have so much apparently non-functional DNA, and how humans are far from being the worst case – producing an onion from his pocket, he revealed that it carried a (relatively) whopping 17 picogrammes of DNA per cell (almost all of it non-functional) compared to just 3.5 pg (a mere 95% non-functional) in humans.
Steve’s particular area of research is in the genome as a living environment, and in identifying competition for landing space among transposable elements, and preferences for ‘nesting’ themselves in among existing TE sites in chromosomes. That, like so much research, is highly technical (if it wasn’t then we’d probably already know the answers). But we were left in no doubt that it’s relevant, and highly worthwhile, as part of the effort to understand how our genetic system really works.