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Jumping genes play a big role in what makes us human

Transposons fill huge chunks of our genetic blueprint

By
7:00am, May 16, 2017
chimpanzee and human

THE DIFFERENCE  Humans and chimpanzees are easy to tell apart, even though they share a primate ancestor. Jumping genes helped sculpt their distinctions.

Face-to-face, a human and a chimpanzee are easy to tell apart. The two species share a common primate ancestor, but over millions of years, their characteristics have morphed into easily distinguishable features. Chimps developed prominent brow ridges, flat noses, low-crowned heads and protruding muzzles. Human noses jut from relatively flat faces under high-domed crowns.

Those facial features diverged with the help of genetic parasites, mobile bits of genetic material that insert themselves into their hosts’ DNA. These parasites go by many names, including “jumping genes,” “transposable elements” and “transposons.” Some are relics of former viruses assimilated into a host’s genome, or genetic instruction book. Others are self-perpetuating pieces of genetic material whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time.

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