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Alu Sequences

Junk DNA or Misunderstood Group of Nucleotides? The human genome is like an endless strain of nucleotides, consisting of over 1.5 billion base pairs. However, only a small portion of this vast strain actually codes for genes that are actually needed for us to survive; only 1.5% of our DNA is what makes us humans. The rest of the genome consists of filler nucleotide sequences, spread around the functional genes. Specific sequences called Alu elements are one of these filler DNAs; they make up 10% of the genome. However, until a few years ago, they were thought to be accidentally introduced to the primate genome by a fusion of two DNA sequences and started to be amplified as the primates evolved, and were considered to be junk or useless DNA, being carried around futilely and serving no purpose. New studies show us that Alu sequences actually have a few important functions in gene regulation. Alus have special machinery that helps them move around the chromosome; they can actually change their location on the chromosome. Sometimes they reattach to sites that they do not affect at all, however, sometimes they can reattach in the middle of a gene, disrupting the genes integrity. Even though processes like translation, conversion of DNA sequences to RNA sequences, and transcription, synthesis of polypeptide chains from RNA sequences, eukaryotic cells have to process the RNA produced by the translation process. They do this by removing the non-coding parts, introns, found in the DNA from the RNA copy and putting the coding parts, exons, together; by a process called RNA splicing. However, sometimes not all the introns are cu out, leaving some intact; when this piece is translated, there will be a different polypeptide chain produced. This way, one gene can actually code for more than one protein. If there is an Alu sequence found in the translated DNA and is left intact it can alter the RNA piece. It can contain a certain triplet of nucleotides that causes a ribosome to detach, a stop codon, which would terminate the transcription before all the parts could have been transcribed. Or, alternatively, it can contain a promoter which would mean that the genes effects will be amplified due to the fact that the RNA will be transcribed more frequently. However, since the nucleotides are read in groups of three, codons, the addition of a nucleotide can cause all the reading frames to shift and render the RNA useless. In this sense, Alus can be either helpful, for their regulatory effects, or harmful, due to their mutagenic effects. Alu containing RNA can always be found in the cytoplasm in minute amounts, however it is found that under stressful conditions; such as viral attacks, the amount increases. It is also known that Alus can promote the expression of a gene when they are found in minute amounts and inhibit the expression of the same gene when they are found in surplus amounts. This shows us that the Alus might actually be functioning in helping the body to recover. Even though there is still little known about the Alu sequences, the findings suggest that the once believed junk is actually quite useful, and needed, for survival and help in the primate evolution.

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