In 1977 Roberts and a team including Thomas Broker, Louise Chow, and
Richard Gelinas established that the genes of the adenovirus--one of
the viruses that cause the common cold--are discontinuous: the segments
of DNA that code for proteins are interrupted by lengthy stretches of
DNA that do not contain genetic information. The coding segments are
called exons; the noncoding ones are called introns. A research team
working under Sharp at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced
the same finding that same year. Previously, based on studies of bacterial
DNA, biologists believed that genes consisted of unbroken stretches
of DNA, all of which encoded protein structure. It has since been established
that the discontinuous gene structure discovered by Roberts and Sharp
is the most common structure found in higher organisms (eukaryotes).
In addition to having important implications for the study of genetic
diseases, this structure is believed to drive evolution by allowing
information from different parts of the gene to be brought together
in new combinations.
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