It has always been believed that mutation of genes occurs spontaneously, showing no signs before occurrence but manifesting only its after-effects in the organism. This phenomenon has remained a mystery to scientists until recent studies by researchers at the University of California, Davis, in collaboration with those at Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Germany, made some progress towards understanding this mystery through their studies on the mouse-ear cress, a small flowering plant considered as a weed.
A mutation is a permanent change in the sequence of the genome, caused by damage to the DNA. Not all mutations are harmful, but some can be quite detrimental as they can result in a genetic disorder or even cancer. What if these mutations show some signs before they occur? What if they can be stopped before their occurrence? What if genetic disorders could be prevented? How about if they could be cured? These and a few other questions drove these scientists on this three-year research journey that unlocked the mystery behind this phenomenon.
The researchers wanted to find out if the occurrence of mutations is spontaneous, or if it can be known beforehand, and behold, what they found out was shocking.
They carried out the study using the mouse-ear cress plant: it began with the planting of the plants in prepared laboratory spaces, allowing for proper growth of the plants, including those defective plants that would not have survived naturally. This was followed by sequencing of hundred plants that revealed about a million mutations, that produced several variations of the plant.
Something interesting that rules out the existing theory that mutations occur randomly and that the ones that manifest in organisms occur only by natural selection, was discovered in this study: they observed that the essential genes of the plant – those responsible for cell development and gene manifestation – had very minute mutation rates. The plant found a way to protect and keep these genes from mutations.
They discovered also that they could foretell the occurrence of mutation of specific genes following the sequence of the packing of the genes around different protein types. This discovery is important to plant breeders as they can now grow better genetic variations of plants.
The findings from this study are crucial as it lays the foundation to enable scientists to uncover new treatment methods for genetically inclined disorders such as Down Syndrome and cancer. The cure to these disorders may also be uncovered later on, consequently saving more people from dying from these diseases.
This study shows that gene mutation can be predicted before its occurrence. The knowledge of this can be utilized in controlling, or probably stopping them, and also to pave the way to innovation of novel treatment methods of genetic disorders and cancers.