Humans’ big-brain genes may have come from ‘junk DNA’

conceptual illustration showing the human brain depicted in blue with various neural networks highlighted using colorful dots

Scientists once considered much of the human genome “junk” because large stretches of its genetic code don’t give rise to any proteins, the complex molecules tasked with keeping cells running. However, it’s since been discovered that this so-called junk DNA plays important roles in cells, and in a new study, researchers report that humans may actually have junk DNA to thank for our exceptionally big brains. 

The research, published Monday (Jan. 2) in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (opens in new tab), suggests that the genes that enabled human brains to grow large lobes and complex information networks may have originally emerged from junk DNA. In other words, at some point, the “junk” picked up the ability to code for proteins, and those new proteins may have been critical to human brain evolution

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