Insertional mutagenesis

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Insertional mutagenesis is mutagenesis of DNA by the insertion of one or more bases.[1]

Insertional mutations can occur naturally, mediated by virus or transposon, or can be artificially created for research purposes in the lab.

Signature tagged mutagenesis[edit]

This is a technique used to study the function of genes. A transposon, such as the Drosophila melanogaster P element, is allowed to integrate at random locations in the genome of the organism being studied. Mutants generated by this method are then screened for any unusual phenotypes. If such a phenotype is found then it can be assumed that the insertion has caused the gene relating to the usual phenotype to be inactivated. Because the sequence of the transposon is known, the gene can be identified, either by sequencing the whole genome and searching for the sequence, or using the polymerase chain reaction to amplify specifically that gene.

Virus insertional mutagenesis[edit]

As mentioned in the introduction, insertional mutagenesis refers to mutation of an organism caused by the insertion of additional DNA bases into the organism's preexisting DNA. Because many viruses (not all of them) integrate their own genome into the genome of their host cells in order to replicate, mutagenesis caused by viral infections is a fairly common occurrence. Not all integrating viruses cause insertional mutagenesis, however.

It is important to note that not all DNA insertions will lead to a noticeable mutation. In recent gene therapy trials, the lentiviral vectors used showed no tendency to disrupt gene function or promote oncogenic development.[2][3] Because of these advances, gene therapy with integrating vectors is now considered safe and is the preferred method of gene transfer due to the permanent nature of the integration compared to the transient persistence of non-integrating viruses. For those viruses such as gamma-retroviruses that do tend to integrate their DNA in genetically unfavorable locations, the severity of any ensuing mutation depends entirely on the location within the host's genome wherein the viral DNA is inserted. If the DNA is inserted into the middle of an essential gene the effects on the cell will be drastic. Additionally, insertion into the promoter region of a gene can cause equally drastic effects. For instance, if the viral DNA is inserted into a repressor, the gene corresponding to that promoter may be over expressed – leading to an overabundance of its product and altered cellular activity. If the DNA is inserted into an enhancer region, the gene may be under-expressed – leading to relative absence of its product, which can significantly interrupt the activity of the cell.

Alteration of different genes will have varying effects on the cell. Not all mutations will significantly affect the proliferation of the cell. However, if the insertion occurs in an essential gene or a gene that is involved in cellular replication or programmed cell death, the insertion may compromise the viability of the cell or even cause the cell to replicate interminably – leading to the formation of a tumor, which may become cancerous.

Below is an example of a significant change in cell activity due to insertion of a viral gene into a portion of the hosts genome that controls replication.

Virus insertional mutagenesis is possible with both replication competent virus and the self-inactivating vectors that are commonly used in gene therapy. The virus inserts a gene (known as a viral onocogene) normally near the cellular myc (c-myc)gene. The c-myc gene is normally turned off in the cell; however when it is turned on it is able to push the cell into the G1 phase of the cell cycle and cause the cell to begin replication, causing unchecked cell proliferation while allowing the viral gene to be replicated. After many replications where the viral gene stays latent tumours begin to grow. These tumours are normally derived from one mutated/transformed cell (clonal in origin). Avian leukosis virus is an example of a virus that causes a disease by insertional mutagenesis. Newly hatched chicks infected with Avian leukosis virus will begin to form tumours that will begin to appear in their bursa of fabricus (like the human thymus). This viral gene insertion is also known as a promoter insertion as it drives the expression of the c-myc gene. There is an example of an insertional mutagenesis event caused by a retrotransposon in the human genome where it causes Fukuyama-type muscular dystrophy.[4]

Insertional inactivation[edit]

Insertional inactivation is a technique used in recombinant DNA engineering where a plasmid (such as pBR322)[5] is used to disable expression of a gene.[6]

The inactivation of a gene by inserting a fragment of DNA into the middle of its coding sequence. Any future products from the inactivated gene will not work because of the extra codes added to it. An example is the use of pBR322, which has genes that respectively encode polypeptides that confer resistance to ampicillin and tetracyclin antibiotics. Hence, when a genetic region is interrupted by integration of pBR322, the gene function is lost but new gene function (resistance to specific antibiotics) is gained.

An alternative strategy for insertional mutagenesis has been used in vertebrate animals to find genes that cause cancer. In this case a transposon, e.g. Sleeping Beauty, is designed to interrupt a gene in such a way that it causes maximal genetic havoc. Specifically, the transposon contains signals to truncate expression of an interrupted gene at the site of the insertion and then restart expression of a second truncated gene. This method has been used to identify oncogenes.[7][8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Biology-online
  2. ^ Biffi A, et al., Lentiviral hematopoietic stem cell gene therapy benefits metachromatic leukodystrophy. Science. 2013 Aug 23;341(6148):1233158.
  3. ^ Aiuti A, et al. Lentiviral hematopoietic stem cell gene therapy in patients with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome. Science. 2013 Aug 23;341(6148):1233151
  4. ^ "Retroviruses". Archived from the original on May 4, 2015. 
  5. ^ Recombinant DNA
  6. ^ Insertional inactivation
  7. ^ Carlson CM, Largaespada DA (July 2005). "Insertional mutagenesis in mice: new perspectives and tools". Nat. Rev. Genet. 6 (7): 568–80. doi:10.1038/nrg1638. PMID 15995698. 
  8. ^ Ivics Z, Izsvák Z (2004). "Transposable elements for transgenesis and insertional mutagenesis in vertebrates: a contemporary review of experimental strategies". Methods Mol. Biol. 260: 255–76. doi:10.1385/1-59259-755-6:255. PMID 15020812. 

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