Age doesn’t matter: New genes are as essential as ancient ones

New genes that have evolved in species as little as one million years ago – a virtual blink in evolutionary history – can be just as essential for life as ancient genes, startling new research has discovered.

Evolutionary biologists have long proposed that the genes most important to life are ancient and conserved, handed down from species to species as the “bread and butter” of biology. New genes that arise as species split off from their ancestors were thought to serve less critical roles – the “vinegar” that adds flavor to the core genes.

But when nearly 200 new genes in the fruit fly species Drosophila melanogaster were individually silenced in laboratory experiments at the University of Chicago, more than 30 percent of the knockdowns were found to kill the fly. The study, published December 17 in Science, suggests that new genes are equally important for the successful development and survival of an organism as older genes.

“A new gene is as essential as any other gene; the importance of a gene is independent of its age,” said Manyuan Long, PhD, Professor of Ecology & Evolution and senior author of the paper. “New genes are no longer just vinegar, they are now equally likely to be butter and bread. We were shocked.”

The study used technology called RNA interference to permanently block the transcription of each targeted gene into its functional product from the beginning of a fly’s life. Of the 195 young genes tested, 59 were lethal (30 percent), causing the fly to die during its development. When the same method was applied to a sample of older genes, a statistically similar figure was found: 86 of 245 genes (35 percent) were lethal when silenced.

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