Some of the most profound genetic discoveries have been made with the help of various model organisms that are favored by scientists for their widespread availability and ease of maintenance and proliferation. One such model is Zea mays (maize), particularly those plants that produce variably colored kernels. Because each kernel is an embryo produced from an individual fertilization, hundreds of offspring can be scored on a single ear, making maize an ideal organism for genetic analysis. Indeed, maize proved to be the perfect organism for the study of transposable elements (TEs), also known as “jumping genes,” which were discovered during the middle part of the twentieth century by American scientist Barbara McClintock. McClintock’s work was revolutionary in that it suggested that an organism’s genome is not a stationary entity, but rather is subject to alteration and rearrangement-a concept that was met with criticism from the scientific community at the time. However, the role of transposons eventually became widely appreciated, and McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 in recognition of this and her many other contributions to the field of genetics.
Transposable elements (TEs), also known as “jumping genes,” are DNA sequences that move from one location on the genome to another. These elements were first identified more than 50 years ago by geneticist Barbara McClintock of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Biologists were initially skeptical of McClintock’s discovery. Over the next several decades, however, it became apparent that not only do TEs “jump,” but they are also found in almost all organisms (both prokaryotes and eukaryotes) and typically in large numbers. For example, TEs make up approximately 50% of the human genome and up to 90% of the maize genome (SanMiguel, 1996).
Oh, by the way, this form of evolution does not turn a cob of corn into a monkey face orchid. It just shuffles stuff around.
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