The jumping gene or "Sleeping Beauty" transposon is "Molecule of the Year 2009". This was announced by Professor Isidro T. Savillo, President of the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology and Biotechnology Protocols and Researches (ISMCBBPR). The transposon was generated by Dr. Zsuzsanna Izsvák, Dr. Zoltán Ivics and Dr. Lajos Mátés of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch. According to the jury, it was selected out of 15 molecules nominated in the contest because "this molecule holds great promise for gene therapy". The jury pointed out that it can stably transfer genes even to stem or progenitor cells and is safer than a viral vector. It is the first time that the Molecule of the Year has been awarded to major recipients outside the USA in Europe.
Transposable elements are molecular parasites that propagate themselves in genomes. But at the same time they provide plasticity to the genome that clearly contributed to the evolution of gene function across the tree of life. About half of the human genome is derived from ancient transposable element sequences.
However, due to mutations, the vast majority of the transposons became inactivated. Based on transposons in fish that are presumed to have been active approximately 20 million years ago, Dr. Ivics and Dr. Izsvák resurrected a jumping gene more than ten years ago. They named the transposon Sleeping Beauty, because they literally awakened it after a long evolutionary "sleep".
The scientists modified the originally reconstructed transposon so that it acquired a highly elevated potency in gene transfer. In its award citation, the jury noted that this hyperactive transposon promises to be a revolutionary technology platform for genetic engineering in vertebrates.
With their new tool, Dr. Izsvák and Dr. Ivics were able to introduce genes into cells of vertebrates at efficiencies previously seen only with viral vector systems. This was impossible before, as researchers previously lacked efficient transposon technologies to do so. Therefore, Sleeping Beauty was referred to as a breakthrough at the European Society of Gene and Cell Therapy Conference in Hannover, Germany in November 2009.
Since 2002 the Molecule of the Year has been awarded by the ISMCBBPR, which was founded in 2000. Prior to 2002 the award was conferred by the journal Science.