Finding genes that have evolved in humans among our genome's 3 billion bases is no easy feat. But now, a team has pinpointed three genes that arose from noncoding DNA and may help make our species unique. 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.