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DNA -- Then, Now and in the Future

Matthew Meselson
Harvard University
Cambridge Massachusetts

Before 1953 the question “What is Life” was as philosophical as it was scientific. But then, all at once, it could be seen how life works in terms of molecular structure and molecular interactions, at least in plausible outline.

The double-strand molecular structure of DNA and the proposals for how it might replicate and mutate proposed by James Watson and Francis Crick in two papers in Nature that year were seen by some as too simple to be right, for is biology not immensely complicated? By others the structure was seen as too beautifully simple to be wrong. But it was only a model.  It could be built as a satisfactory structure with molecular scale-models, a structure consistent with diverse physical and chemical evidence, although not actually proven by the X-ray diffraction pattern. The fact that the separate chains wind around a common axis, “plectonemically”, was not proven until 1978.

It was the immensely attractive way in which the structure could explain fundamental life processes that from the start argued most strongly for its correctness: how the structure could code for protein, how it could replicate, and how mutations could result from chemically plausible mis-pairing of the component pyrimidines and purines.  In addition to all that, it was the directly visualizable demonstration in 1958 that, as had been predicted in the second of the two Nature papers,  DNA replicates semi-conservatively, each parental chain becoming associated with a newly synthesized chain, that dispelled remaining doubt, as Watson wrote at the time. 

For the following decade or so, the WC structure took over the agenda of much of molecular biological research. Simply looking at the structure suggested detailed ways in which it might replicate, mutate, code for protein, and fold into chromosomes. Experiments were based on such suggestions from the molecule itself.  When has just looking at a lipid molecule or even a protein ever told the experimenter what to do?

With the development of increasingly powerful methods for determining DNA sequence, there have come immense advances in fields as diverse as medical genetics and patterns of ancient human migration.  And with the recent advent of simple methods for precise alteration of DNA sequence in living cells we can foresee a time when we humans will, for better or worse, guide our own  evolution  by deliberate modification of germline DNA.  The prospect of human intervention in human evolution, even if only theoretical now, raises the questions of what in our genetic make-up must not be lost.  Certainly the answer is that, while possibly introducing beneficial enhancements into the genome, we must avoid losing essential human attributes. It would probably be generally agreed that the most essential of these is our humanity itself. Yet how is that to be defined? And if defined, how to determine its genetic basis, for surely our most valued human attributes, or more precisely, the potential for their expression is coded in our genomes.

Featured article: A beginner’s guide to manual curation of transposable elements

Schematic representation of RM2 outputIn the study of transposable elements (TEs), the generation of a high confidence set of consensus sequences that represent the diversity of TEs found in a given genome is a key step in the path to investigate these fascinating genomic elements. This article attempts to fill the gap between automated annotation of TEs and the generation of a manually curated library by providing a set of detailed computer protocols, software recommendations and video tutorials for those aiming to manually curate TEs. Read full article here!

Featured series: Transposable Elements in Model Organisms

New Content ItemWe are proud to present a new series of review papers focused on transposable elements (TE) in model organisms. This series will deliver a comprehensive and even coverage of the diversity of TEs populating the model species; outstanding questions and future directions with the study of TEs in species; and much more

Editors' Picks

Highlights from recent literature on mobile elements, selected by the Editors-in-Chief.

Bracoviruses recruit host integrases for their integration into caterpillar's genome [PLoS Genet. 2021] PubMed

Regulation of retrotransposition in Arabidopsis [Biochem Soc Trans. 2021] PubMed

Circular RNA repertoires are associated with evolutionarily young transposable elements [Elife. 2021) PubMed

Characterization of full-length LINE-1 insertions in 154 genomes [Genomics. 2021] PubMed

piRNA-independent transposon silencing by the Drosophila THO complex [Dev Cell. 2021] PubMed

View all editors' picks

Aims and scope

Mobile DNA is an online, peer-reviewed, open access journal that publishes articles providing novel insights into the function, biological impact, and evolution of transposable elements in any organism. Topics related to transposable elements may include genetic or epigenetic variation, genome rearrangements, mechanisms, patterns and processes of transposition, and the role of mobile elements in host genome evolution.

Mobile DNA aims to understand:
  • mechanisms of intra- and intergenomic mobility via genetic, comparative genomic, biochemical and structural approaches
  • regulation of DNA rearrangements by the environment and during development
  • how DNA restructuring reshapes cellular function and organism evolution
  • the role of transposable elements in disease in a variety of organisms
  • host—element interaction and genetic/epigenetic regulatory networks

Mobile DNA reflects the need for a journal that spans all aspects of specialized recombination, from structure and mechanism to evolutionary impact. In addition, the journal will consider articles on the utility of mobile genetic elements in biotechnological methods and protocols, and related biocomputational tools.

Editors-in-Chief

Irina Arkhipova, Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole
Kathleen Burns, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School, USA
Pascale Lesage, INSERM, France
 

Our Associate Editors: 
Orsolya Barabas, European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Germany
Gael Cristofari, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, France 
Adam Ewing, Mater Research Institute-University of Queensland, Australia
Clément Gilbert, CNRS, Université Paris Saclay, France 
Molly G Hammell, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, USA
Damon R Lisch, Purdue University, USA
Joe Peters, Cornell University, USA
Phoebe Rice, The University of Chicago, USA 
Vincent Colot, Institut de Biologie de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (IBENS), France

Links to Useful TE Community Resources

Transposable elements labs directory

Women in TEs (maintained by Cedric Feschotte)

Job vacancies

Transposons Worldwide SLACK Page (Managed by Rebecca Berrens)

Mobile DNA Tools Collection

TE digest (Managed by Alexander Suh)

TE Hub

TnCentral

ISfinder (Insertion Sequence database)

Upcoming meetings

Mobile DNA is proud to share information about the following conferences/meetings which will be of interest to our readership:


The Mobile DNA Conference: Evolution, Diversity, and Impact

June 5–9, 2022, Malahide, Ireland


Annual Journal Metrics