First Decoded Marsupial Genome Reveals "Junk DNA" Surprise

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"Twenty percent of all the regulatory instructions in the human genome were invented after we part ways with the marsupials," Lander said.

"That was the first really important surprise about evolution—it's tinkering much more with the controls than it is with the genes themselves."

The scientists were also surprised to find that these regulatory sequences have in large part been distributed across the human genome by so-called jumping genes.

These genes have hopped through chromosomes for more than a billion years, leaving behind many copies of themselves. So until now the genes had been widely regarded by scientists as parasites, or "junk DNA," that played no creative role in evolution.

"It was a surprise that quite a significant proportion of all the new regulatory controls in the genome were coming from jumping genes," Lander said.

"It looks like [they are] a pretty major force for evolutionary innovation."

Advanced Immune System

The short-tailed opossum is native to South America and is also known as the Brazilian opossum and rain forest opossum.

The individual whose genome was sequenced came from a colony housed at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas.

The animals have many features that make them ideal for scientific research, especially during early development, experts point out.

"Their biology is fascinating," said Jenny Grace, a biologist and marsupial expert at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

"Their young are born very tiny, the size of a penny."

The creatures are the only other mammals known to develop melanoma skin cancer solely from exposure to ultraviolet light, the cause of melanoma in most human cases.

Newborn opossums can also repair damage to their spinal cords, making them a focus of research into regenerative medicine.

"This shows us that it may not be that hard to grow spinal cords," said Lander, the Broad Institute director.

"Once you have a marsupial that can do something that a human or mouse can't do, you can compare the two," he added. "We're saying, wait, wait, it may not be that hard to grow spinal cords. Our closest cousins can do it. Let's see what tricks [they] have."

Scientists had also believed that marsupials have a primitive immune system.

"The genome project knocked that firmly on its head," ANU's Grace said.

"It turns out that marsupials have a very complicated immune system. It's just different from us."

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