Ohio State Universty Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics Keith Slotkin has received the National Science Foundation’s highest award for the country’s most promising young scientists, the NSF CAREER Award.
These grants are given to researchers who early in their careers have clearly demonstrated their potential for making significant discoveries in their fields. Slotkin studies transposable elements, sometimes called “jumping genes,” that are stretches of DNA that can duplicate or move from one location in the genome to another.
“These are fragments of DNA that reside in the genomes of multicellular organisms,” Slotkin said. “They’re not considered actual genes, but they’re like little genomic parasites. They are out only to duplicate themselves—not to help the organism they reside in.”
Their highly-successful ability to do just that has resulted in transposable elements occupying vast amounts of most plant and animal genomes. “For example, they occupy nearly half of the human genome, and 85% of corn,” Slotkin said.
Although often overlooked or dismissed as “junk DNA,” transposable elements have played an important role in the structure and evolution of these genomes.
One of the key questions is why transposable elements have been conserved through time.
“Maybe,” Slotkin said, “they have a key function in the organism. But we don’t yet know whether they are pure parasites or have another function.
“But we do know that when transposable elements are active—that is when they ‘jump,’ they cause damage, which includes chromosome breakage, instability, and disease and can destroy an organism very quickly from inside.”