Transposons, also called transposable elements, are ancient viruses that have become a permanent part of our genes. Around half of the human genome is made of transposons, many are damaged, but some can become active. Active transposons can be harmful because they move about the genome. When transposons move they can damage genes, leading to genetic illnesses and playing a part in some cancers.
The new findings show that transposons become active when cells erase DNA methylation and they are shut down by the endosiRNA system. Just like active genes, active transposons produce messages in the form of RNA molecules, which have many similarities to DNA. The study reveals that cells can detect these transposon RNA messages and use them to create specific endogenous small interfering RNAs (endosiRNAs). The endosiRNAs then act like a trap allowing a protein called Argonaute2 (Ago2) to seek and destroy transposon messages before they cause any harm.
The effects of active transposons vary, often they have no effect, only occasionally will they alter an important gene. Yet, transposons can affect almost any gene, potentially leading to different kinds of genetic disease. Studying the control of transposons, adds to our understanding of the many ways that they can impact on human health.
[Editor’s note: Read the full study]
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