As you root through genomic sequences – and there are more and more of them to root through these days – you come across some stretches of DNA that hardly seem to vary at all. The hard-core “ultraconserved” parts, first identified in 2004, are absolutely identical between mice, rats, and humans. Our last common ancestor was rather a long time ago (I know, I know – everyone works with some people who seem to be exceptions, but bear with me), so these things are rather well-preserved.

Even important enzyme sequences vary a bit among the three species, so what could these pristine stretches (some of which are hundreds of base pairs long) be used for? The assumption, naturally, has been that whatever it is, it must be mighty important, but if we’re going to be scientists, we can’t just go around assuming that what we think must be right. A team at Lawrence Berkeley and the DOE put things to the test recently by identifying four of the ultraconserved elements that all seem to be located next to critical genes – and deleting them.

The knockout mice turned out to do something very surprising indeed. They were born normally, but then they grew up normally. When they reached adulthood, though, they were completely normal. Exhaustive biochemical and behavioral tests finally uncovered the truth: they’re basically indistinguishable from the wild type. Hey, I told you it was surprising. This must have been the last thing that the researchers expected.

Reaction to these results has been a series of raised eyebrows and furrowed foreheads. Deleting any of the known genes near the ultraconserved sequences confirms that they, anyway, are as important as they’re billed to be. And these genes show the usual level of difference that you see among the three species. So what’s this unchanged, untouchable, but apparently disposable stuff in there with them?

No one knows. And it’s a real puzzle, the answer to which is going to be tangled up with a lot of our basic ideas about genes and evolution. To a good first approximation, it’s hard to see how (or why) something like this should be going on. So what, exactly, are we missing? Something important? And if so, what else have we missed, too?

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