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Could “jumping genes” contribute to cancer?

Transposons, or "jumping" genes, helped our cells evolve, but they might also help cancer develop. (Evil Erin/Flickr)

Our cells’ nuclei aren’t exactly what you’d call calm, quiet places. They’re more like busy city squares, filled with a constant bustle of activity: DNA folds and unfolds, proteins zip in and out to read genes and tag histones and whole chromosomes duplicate themselves while the cell preps for its next round of division.

Now add one more ingredient to this mix: genes that don’t sit still. Our genome is full of what are called transposons, the remnants of ancient viruses that bound themselves within our DNA over evolutionary time. Transposons pretty much do just one thing—copy and insert themselves all over the genome, cutting in on other genes like suitors at a debutantes’ ball.

You might think that having pieces of DNA randomly jumping into and out of genes wouldn’t be a very good thing. And you’d be right: members of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Informatics Program (CHIP) recently reported in Science the first evidence that transposons may directly contribute to the development of some cancers. But the story isn’t that simple.

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