Something from Nothing

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Science  30 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5953, pp. 644
DOI: 10.1126/science.326_644c

Gene duplication is a common means for generating the raw material of new genes, especially because the duplicated coding and regulatory regions provide a ready-made, fully active substrate for evolutionary processes that lead to sub- or neofunctionalization. The de novo origin of genes—which refers to the so-called orphan genes whose ancestry cannot be traced to known genes—is less frequently encountered and thought to occur when transposable elements or genome rearrangements bring together fragments of genetic clay from which a transcribable structure can be built.

Heinen et al. identify an orphan gene that has been born directly from a virgin intergenic region in the mouse genome. This gene is limited to the genus Mus and appeared roughly 3 million years ago. It is under positive selection, having been subject to a selective sweep in the recent past. Although there are two open reading frames in the transcript, it seems to function as a noncoding RNA that is alternatively spliced and hence named Polymorphic derived intron-containing (Poldi). Poldi is expressed in mouse testis, and knockout of the gene results in reduced testis weight and sperm motility. As differential expression of Poldi requires only a simple promoter, and cryptic splicing and polyadenylation signals are already present in intergenic regions, the birth of new genes may be less rare than we thought.

Curr. Biol. 19, 1527 (2009).

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