A study by Interim Dean of Arts and Science David Fitch and the Fitch lab was recently published in the journal Development, on the discovery of a new gene that helps to regulate the timing of the "juvenile-to-adult transition" or the "J/A" transition.
In mammals, the J/A transition is often called puberty, but the J/A occurs in most other animals too, usually at a particular time in the organism's life cycle. Often, there are major changes to the organism that happen during the J/A, such as maturation of reproductive organs and changes in behavior. The timing of the J/A may be partly determined by environment, but it is also determined by genes.
Now, using the nematode worm C. elegans as a model organism, the Fitch lab identified a new gene called LEP-2 that is involved in the J/A switch. They find that LEP-2 inhibits another gene, LIN-28, that is known to regulate not only the J/A switch in worms and humans, but also switches between stem cells and differentiated cells. LEP-2 turns out to be highly conserved in vertebrates and humans, where it is called "Makorin."
Variations in human Makorin also cause variations in pubertal timing, so the role of LEP-2 in inhibiting LIN-28 may also be conserved throughout evolution. Because LIN-28 is also involved in stem cells and cancer, this link to the new gene may also provide a new target for drug therapies or cellular engineering.
Watch the C. elegans mating behavior here.