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Genome Biol Evol. 2011;3:156-67. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evr005. Epub 2011 Jan 31.

Transposable element proliferation and genome expansion are rare in contemporary sunflower hybrid populations despite widespread transcriptional activity of LTR retrotransposons.

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  • 1Division of Biology, Kansas State University, USA.


Hybridization is a natural phenomenon that has been linked in several organismal groups to transposable element derepression and copy number amplification. A noteworthy example involves three diploid annual sunflower species from North America that have arisen via ancient hybridization between the same two parental taxa, Helianthus annuus and H. petiolaris. The genomes of the hybrid species have undergone large-scale increases in genome size attributable to long terminal repeat (LTR) retrotransposon proliferation. The parental species that gave rise to the hybrid taxa are widely distributed, often sympatric, and contemporary hybridization between them is common. Natural H. annuus × H. petiolaris hybrid populations likely served as source populations from which the hybrid species arose and, as such, represent excellent natural experiments for examining the potential role of hybridization in transposable element derepression and proliferation in this group. In the current report, we examine multiple H. annuus × H. petiolaris hybrid populations for evidence of genome expansion, LTR retrotransposon copy number increases, and LTR retrotransposon transcriptional activity. We demonstrate that genome expansion and LTR retrotransposon proliferation are rare in contemporary hybrid populations, despite independent proliferation events that took place in the genomes of the ancient hybrid species. Interestingly, LTR retrotransposon lineages that proliferated in the hybrid species genomes remain transcriptionally active in hybrid and nonhybrid genotypes across the entire sampling area. The finding of transcriptional activity but not copy number increases in hybrid genotypes suggests that proliferation and genome expansion in contemporary hybrid populations may be mitigated by posttranscriptional mechanisms of repression.

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