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Genetica. 1999;107(1-3):171-9.

Transposable elements as the key to a 21st century view of evolution.

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  • 1University of Chicago, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cummings Life Sciences Center, IL 60637-4931, USA.


Cells are capable of sophisticated information processing. Cellular signal transduction networks serve to compute data from multiple inputs and make decisions about cellular behavior. Genomes are organized like integrated computer programs as systems of routines and subroutines, not as a collection of independent genetic 'units'. DNA sequences which do not code for protein structure determine the system architecture of the genome. Repetitive DNA elements serve as tags to mark and integrate different protein coding sequences into coordinately functioning groups, to build up systems for genome replication and distribution to daughter cells, and to organize chromatin. Genomes can be reorganized through the action of cellular systems for cutting, splicing and rearranging DNA molecules. Natural genetic engineering systems (including transposable elements) are capable of acting genome-wide and not just one site at a time. Transposable elements are subject to regulation by cellular signal transduction/computing networks. This regulation acts on both the timing and extent of DNA rearrangements and (in a few documented cases so far) on the location of changes in the genomes. By connecting transcriptional regulatory circuits to the action of natural genetic engineering systems, there is a plausible molecular basis for coordinated changes in the genome subject to biologically meaningful feedback.

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