“Dark DNA” Is Changing the Way We See Evolution

What allows the cuttlefish to camouflage itself so perfectly that it blends in with every nuance and contour of its environment? How come notothenioid fish of the Antarctic developed antifreeze proteins in their blood to survive the extreme temperatures? How is it the African Pyxie Frog can seal itself in a mucus membrane cocoon and hibernate for up to seven years, in order to wait out long droughts?

The answer to all of these is adaptation and natural selection, the twin pillars of evolution. And for the first time, evolutionary biologists are really getting a behind-the-scenes look at these processes. We can decode a species genome and compare and contrast it to others. But the double helix hasn’t revealed all of its mysteries, yet.

Among the strangest discoveries so far is “dark DNA.” The name likens it to dark matter, which is said to comprise 25% of the universe, yet so far remains illusive. In evolutionary biology, researchers can look at the genomes of species, see which genes cross over, and begin to decipher what function each serves.

By comparing the genomes of different organisms, geneticists can tell what genes lead to which traits. Getty Images.

What some studies are now finding is that a critter may be missing a certain gene required for survival. Yet, the protein which it would have produced is somehow still expressed. The gene itself or some other mechanism must be at work. But the means remain nearly undetectable. These are called hidden genes. Another name for it is dark DNA.

In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, scientists looked at one case involving sand rats. These are desert dwelling gerbils native to North Africa and the Middle East. The poor things are prone to type 2 diabetes, it seems.

This study focused on a gene called Pdx1, which is responsible for insulin production. Though essential to survival, it was found to be missing from the genome of this particular species. How could the desert rat…

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