Most genes have deep histories, with ancestors that reach down into the tree of life, sometimes all the way back to bacteria. The gradual increase from the few thousand genes in a bacterium to the tens of thousands of genes in a person came primarily through genome- and gene-duplication events, which created extra sets of genes free to evolve new sequences and new functions. Much of this duplication happened long before humans evolved, though some duplications occurred in the human lineage to create exclusively human twins of existing genes.
But in 2006, geneticists showed for the first time that they could identify truly novel genes. In fruit flies, they came across five young genes that were derived from “noncoding” DNA between existing genes and not from preexisting genes. As a result, other researchers started looking for novel genes in other species.
Meanwhile, while looking for gene duplications in humans, geneticists Aoife McLysaght and David Knowles of Trinity College Dublin kept coming across genes that seemed to have no counterparts in other primates, suggesting that new genes arose in us as well. To determine which of these genes with no counterparts were de novo genes, McLysaght and Knowles first used a computer to compare the human, chimp, and other genomes. They eliminated all but three of the 644 candidates because their sequence in the database was not complete–or they had equivalents in other species.
Next, they searched the chimp genome for signs of each gene’s birth. “We strove hard to identify the noncoding DNA that gave rise to the gene,” McLysaght says. Only by finding that DNA could they be sure that the gene wasn’t already present in the chimp genome but was somehow unrecognizable to gene-finding programs. At three locations where the chimp and human genomes were almost identical, telltale mutations indicated that it was impossible to get a viable protein from the chimp DNA sequence.