The new finding gives scientists the first proof of a hypothesised defence strategy, said John Moran, a professor at the University of Michigan in the US. "It is often hard to see what normally happens during an efficient process that occurs inside our cells," said Moran.

On one side of the battle are "regular" DNA, which provide day-to-day instructions for life. On the other side are tiny bits of rogue DNA that hide like spies between genes in our own DNA. From time-to-time, these rogue bits of DNA spin off a copy of themselves and "jump" to another DNA location, often causing harmful mutations when they land.

To discover the defence mechanism of the cells, the researchers focused on the defensive activity of an enzyme called APOBEC3A and showed that it can cause mutations within the LINE-1 retrotransposons as they jump to new locations. This prevents subsequent invasions into other areas of DNA. This defensive strike sends out a signal to other defence forces inside the cell, which neutralise the jumping gene and sweep away the destroyed copy.

The findings could also lead to the development of new cancer drugs, said the study which appeared in the journal eLife.


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