International team shows how the human brain alters its genetic landscape

31 Oct 2011

An international team of researchers, including Australians, have discovered a new genetic mechanism behind the extraordinary plasticity of the brain, which underpins our ability to learn, remember and think.

The team, which includes Professor John Mattick of The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), published the study overnight in the leading scientific journal Nature.

“The study shows that mobile genetic elements called transposons, previously thought to be selfish passengers who hitch a ride in our DNA without contributing, are actually moving around the brain,” Professor Mattick said.

“The findings demonstrate that this mobilisation alters the genetic landscape of the human brain, and explains, at least in part, how the brain is able to change its structure in response to its environment.”

The study was led by Dr Geoff Faulkner, who obtained his PhD at the IMB and is now a laboratory head at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Dr Faulkner and his colleagues developed state-of-the-art sequencing and computational techniques to capture and map the precise location of particular transposable elements, previously impossible because of their repetitive nature.

They used these techniques to show that different types of these sequences are mobilised in different cells in key centres of the brain, strongly suggesting that this is an important part of the molecular processes involved in cognition.

“This is a major leap forward in our understanding of the brain,” Professor Mattick said. “While transposition of genetic sequences is well-recognised to play a role in evolutionary processes, it was not expected to play a role in real-time human biology. The fact that it does is a major surprise and a major advance.”

“It also, yet again, suggests that many if not most assumptions about the structure of human genetic information have been incorrect, and that what was dismissed as ‘junk’ because it was not understood actually holds the key to understanding human development and intelligence.”

The paper, entitled “Somatic retrotransposition alters the genetic landscape of the human brain” can be accessed at

Media contacts:

Professor John Mattick – 07 3346 2079

Dr Geoff Faulkner – 0011 44 131 651 9100

Bronwyn Adams - 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247