About the “Under the Radar” series: Some scientific concepts come up again and again in interviews with scientists but never find their way into newspaper headlines. Each post in this series follows one of those biology “bogeys” that fly under journalism’s radar through 3 different mini-stories.
Story #1: Scientists splice up a CRISPR chicken…and find an evolutionary shortcut
Birds’ brains have all of the tools to make mammal-like neurons, according to a study in Science from August. And, incredibly, the researchers behind the study only had to tinker with one gene that changes how chicken cells edit their RNA to unlock several seemingly unrelated mammal neuron traits in chicken neural precursor cells.
It was as if the chicken cells instantly acquired a whole bunch of mutations at once, instead of just one.
Researchers think that this gene editing process– aka “alternative splicing”–may explain why some traits seem to have evolved at such high speeds.
“This is a process that has diverged very rapidly during evolution to produce different versions of proteins,” University of Toronto geneticist Ben Blencowe explained in a phone interview.
500 million years is a long time to evolve, but it’s still hard to account for all of the diversity in vertebrates based on variation in DNA base pairs alone.
The key to animal diversity lies in an aspect of biology that your high school biology class kinda sorta covered, but lots of people forget all the steps after they’re done cramming for the test.