“Where do new genes come from?” is a long-standing question in genetics and evolutionary biology. A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, published Jan. 23 in Science Express, shows that new genes are created from non-coding DNA more rapidly than expected.
“This shows very clearly that genes are being born from ancestral sequences all the time,” said David Begun, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis and senior author on the paper.
Geneticists have long puzzled about how completely new genes appear. In a well-known model proposed by Nobel laureate Susumu Ohno, new functions appear when existing genes are duplicated and then diverge in function. Begun’s laboratory discovered a few years ago that new genes could also appear from previously non-coding stretches of DNA, and similar effects have since been discovered in other animals and plants. “This is the first example of totally new genes still spreading through a species,” said Li Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis and first author on the paper.