The finding implies that some organisms may contain a cryptic backup copy of their genome that bypasses the usual mechanisms of heredity. If confirmed, it would represent an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. Equally surprising, the cryptic genome appears not to be made of DNA, the standard hereditary material.
The discovery also raises interesting biological questions - including whether it gets in the way of evolution, which depends on mutations changing an organism rather than being put right by a backup system.
"It looks like a marvelous discovery," said Dr. Elliott Meyerowitz, a plant geneticist at the California Institute of Technology. Dr. David Haig, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, described the finding as "a really strange and unexpected result," which would be important if the observation holds up and applies widely in nature.
The result, reported online yesterday in the journal Nature by Dr. Robert E. Pruitt, Dr. Susan J. Lolle and colleagues at Purdue, has been found in a single species, the mustardlike plant called arabidopsis that is the standard laboratory organism of plant geneticists. But there are hints that the same mechanism may occur in people, according to a commentary by Dr. Detlef Weigel of the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. Dr. Weigel describes the Purdue work as "a spectacular discovery."
Nasty mutation on the left; pretty bootstrap-repaired normal offspring on the right.
If only we'd discovered this sooner, we wouldn't have had to put up with those pesky ninja turles.
Indexed by tags plants, genes, science.