New genes from scratch – Trinity geneticist discusses the evolution of DNA

Professor in Genetics at Trinity, Aoife McLysaght, explained how new genes evolve and how they sometimes become essential as she addressed a packed audience while delivering the 2016 JBS Haldane Lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London.

The DNA in every living cell, including all of those in our bodies, has been passed down from our ancestors, going right back to the origins of life.

In recent years, geneticists have used new technologies to compare the all-important DNA sequences in different species and individuals that explain why life’s myriad variations exist. Having direct access to the blueprints that have sprung from billions of years of evolution has provided these geneticists with incredible information about how – and why – evolutionary novelties arise.

Professor McLysaght, who was the first to discover a set of new genes that only occur in humans, explored these ideas in her lecture. She placed a particular emphasis on our rapidly growing understanding of how new genes evolve, and on the the link between new genes and disease, including cancer.

New genes may appear in genomes in a variety of ways, but much of Professor McLysaght’s work focuses on the origins of de novo genes, which are those that arise from sections of the DNA code which previously did not code for proteins.

Professor McLysaght said: “It is a huge honour to have been awarded the JBS Haldane Lecture Prize. It is a real challenge to present complex scientific ideas to a lay audience in a way that is comprehensible while at the same time not losing the excitement of the work, and I was thrilled to deliver this lecture to a tremendous audience.”

“It was a fantastic opportunity to explain my recent work on the evolution of new genes, as well as the broader context, to the audience at the Royal Institution. I was also able to speculate on how the special evolutionary conflicts around the origin of new genes might explain why so many new genes have a role in cancer.”

The lecture is named in honour of John Burdon Sanderson (JBS) Haldane, who was a British scientist known for his contributions to the fields of physiology, mathematics, evolution and genetics. He is credited with laying the foundations for modern evolutionary synthesis, having created models of population genetics, which essentially unified the theories of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution via natural selection in the early 20th Century.

The lecture is organised by the Genetics Society UK. Taking place once each year, it recognises an individual for his/her outstanding ability to communicate topical subjects in genetics research.