Tandem repeats and morphological variation

bull terrier

All of us mammals have pretty much the same set of genes, yet obviously there have to be some significant differences to differentiate a man from a mouse. What we currently think is the major source of morphological diversity is in the cis regulatory regions; that is, stretches of DNA outside the actual coding region of the gene that are responsible for switching the gene on and off. We might all have hair, but where we differ is when and where mice and men grow it on their bodies, and that is under the control of these regulatory elements.

A new paper by Fondon and Garner suggests that there is another source of variation between individuals: tandem repeats. Tandem repeats are short lengths of DNA that are repeated multiple times within a gene, anywhere from a handful of copies to more than a hundred. They are also called VNTRs, or variable number tandem repeats, because different individuals within a population may have different numbers of repeats. These VNTRs are relatively easy to detect with molecular tools, and we know that populations (humans included) may carry a large reservoir of different numbers of repeats, but what exactly the differences do has never been clear. One person might carry 3 tandem repeats in a particular gene, while her neighbor might bear 15, with no obvious differences between them that can be traced to that particular gene. So the question is what, if anything, does having a different number of tandem repeats do to an organism?

Continue reading "Tandem repeats and morphological variation" (on Pharyngula)