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'Junk' DNA Mystery Resolved?: Not Needed, Scientists Claim

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First Posted: May 12, 2013 04:32 PM EDT
Light micrograph of the carnivorous bladderwort plant Utricularia gibba.

Light micrograph of the carnivorous bladderwort plant Utricularia gibba. Credit:Enrique Ibarra-Laclette and Claudia Anahí Pérez-Torres

"Junk" DNA, a type of noncoding DNA abundant in many species, has puzzled scientists for years. Now, however, they believe they've figured out that junk DNA really is, well, junk.

"At least for a plant, junk DNA really is just junk - it's not required," study co-author Victor Albert, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Buffalo in New York, said.

The findings are with regards to a carnivorous plant, however they could also hold implications for the human genome. Within the human genome, genes make up about two percent. The function of the remaining 98 percent has remained a matter of debate among scientists. Most have thought that this type of remainder in species is comprised of genetic parasites or fossils of once useful genes. They termed this DNA "junk" DNA.

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Recently, however, scientists have begun to reconsider the DNA and whether it might play some sort of useful role. A project called ENCODE was dedicated to this task.

In their research, the scientists studied the bladderwort plant Utricularia gibba. The difference with this plant was that it had removed much of its noncoding DNA, and had no trouble functioning without it. In an additional twist, its entire genome was duplicated.

"The big story is that only 3 percent of the bladderwort's genetic material is so-called 'junk' DNA," Albert said. "Somehow, this plant has purged most of what makes up plant genomes. What that says is that you can have a perfectly good multicellular plant with lots of different cells, organs, tissue types and flowers, and you can do it without the junk. Junk is not needed."

The findings are published Sunday May 12 in the journal Nature.

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