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Genomic junk

Not only is the high percentage of "junk DNA" in the recently decoded human genome harmless, but, according to Wen-Hsiung Li, the George Wells Beadle professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, it may actually provide clues to how human genes evolved. In a computational analysis published in the February 12 Nature, Li's team found that 46 percent of the human genome is "junk"-that is, stretches of noncoding DNA with no apparent function other than to repeat base-pair sequences. A surprisingly large number of the repetitive DNA was found in translated proteins, which means the "junk" has been spliced along with encoded genes during the molecular busywork of protein creation. Li believes it's possible that, over time, the indiscriminate splicing created new proteins that differentiated humans from other species. The researchers are studying the location and distribution of the repetitive elements to retrace their steps over an evolutionary timeframe.

> > Malaria prevention in sight?
Triclosan, a common antiseptic used in personal-care products such as toothpaste, skin creams, and deodorants, kills the parasites responsible for malaria and toxoplasmosis, reports a team of U.S. and U.K. researchers led by Rima McLeod, Jules and Doris Stein professor of ophthalmology. The team's work, published in the February International Journal for Parasitology, shows that triclosan works by blocking the FabI enzyme in malarial parasites, which the bacteria need to manufacture fatty acids for their cell membranes. Malaria, which affects 300 million people worldwide and kills an estimated 3,000 people each day, has grown resistant to drugs currently available.

> > Skin deep
The cause of squamous cell carcinoma, the second-most common form of skin cancer, appears to lie in the function of the cell itself, according to a paper by Elaine V. Fuchs, the Amgen professor of molecular genetics, in the February 23 Cell. Previously believed to have only a structural function in skin, the squamous cell, argues Fuchs, is actually an important part of the signaling pathway that controls the cycle of cell growth in skin. "Knock out" the cell-Fuchs bred mice whose skin lacked the squamous-and cell growth cycles out of control, resulting in the carcinoma.

> > Salamanders in China
Neil Shubin, professor and chair of organismal biology and anatomy, has discovered a bed of more than 500 salamander fossils in northern China that points to an Asian origin for the species, according to the March 26 Nature. The 150-million-year-old fossils are the earliest and most detailed examples of the species, the origin of which was previously unknown.

> > Dark side of justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famed U.S. Supreme Court justice who stated that "clear and present danger" is the only basis for limiting free speech, was a cold and savage man who espoused Social Darwinism, favored eugenics, and as he himself acknowledged, came "devilish near to believing that might makes right." So says law professor Albert W. Alschuler in his book Law without Values (Chicago, 2000), in which he paints a dark image of the man considered by many Americans to be a judicial saint.

> > Does the Internet pull prices down?
Buyers beware: you actually might be getting a good deal when you shop online, say assistant professor of business Austan Goolsbee and Harvard economist Jeffrey Brown. Their November study of term life insurance rates for the National Bureau of Economic Research shows a strong correlation between rising Internet usage and a sharp drop in the cost of term insurance between 1996 and 1997. The authors attribute the drop-which reflects a savings of 3 to 5 percent, or $115 million to $215 million nationwide-to the ease of comparison shopping online. The more consumers use the Internet to shop around for services such as insurance, the authors say, the tighter the squeeze on companies' profit margins.

  APRIL 2001

  > > Volume 93, Number 4

  > > A Radical Takes Root
  > >
All that jazz
  > >
How to catch a Higgs
  > >
Bound to change

  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  > > Chicago Journal

  > > College Report

  > > Editor's Note
  > > From the President

  > > Letters
  > > Chicagophile



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