Our immune systems have the impressive ability to handle a wide variety of nasty bugs, but when you look “under the hood” at the genes involved, it can look like a Rube Goldberg machine.
Antibody genes get taken apart and put back together in a semi-random way that generates a vast armory of tools, all varying slightly from each other. This process, known as V(D)J recombination, generates the diversity (many genetically different cells within one person!) necessary to respond to what nature throws at us.
It’s hard to believe that a process like this could emerge bit by bit through evolution, but the immune system was actually a centerpiece of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, where a Pennsylviania school district’s requirement to teach “intelligent design” was successfully challenged.
John Travis, as part of a series of essays celebrating Charles Darwin’s life and work in Science, describes this in greater detail. He lays out how scientists have gradually built their understanding of how V(D)J recombination may have been at first “planted” in animals’ immune systems and blossomed later on.
By the way, one of the papers that emerged from my time in David Schatz‘s lab is on the evidence list for the trial! I was thrilled to discover this even several years later. My fellow graduate student Alka Agrawal was first author of the paper. She went on to win a prize for an essay explaining the significance of our work.
Travis points out that more recently, scientists have found that enzymes resembling RAG1 and RAG2, the “scissors” that cut the DNA to initiate V(D)J, have been found in sea urchins (ie before vertebrates emerged), and it’s not clear what they do there.
Their existence in the urchin suggests that the transposon [jumping DNA] with these enzymes invaded animals far earlier than had been thought but was lost in most lineages except for jawed vertebrates, which adapted them to perform VDJ recombination. That’s an easier version of the story for some immunologists to swallow, as it allows more time for mutations to deactivate the jumping ability of a transposon and convert its DNA to a new job.
Clearly, our picture of how VDJ evolved will continue to change as more genomic/wet biological information becomes available for species close to the vertebrate/invertebrate line, like lampreys. That leads me to my next post…