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Mol Biol Evol. 1999 Jul;16(7):938-52.

Evolution of sea urchin retroviral-like (SURL) elements: evidence from 40 echinoid species.

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Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Balboa, Panama.


We conducted a phylogenetic survey of sea urchin retroviral-like (SURL) retrotransposable elements in 33 species of the class Echinoidea (sea urchins, sand dollars, and heart urchins). A 263-bp fragment from the coding region of the reverse transcriptase (RT) gene was amplified, cloned, and sequenced. Phylogenetic relationships of the elements isolated from independent clones, along with those from seven additional echinoid species obtained earlier by Springer et al., were compared with host phylogeny. Vertical transmission and the presence of paralogous sequences that diverged prior to host speciation can explain most of the phylogenetic relationships among SURL elements. Rates of evolution were estimated from cases in which SURL and host phylogenies were concordant. In agreement with conclusions reached previously by Springer et al., average rates of synonymous substitution were comparable with those of single-copy sea urchin DNA. High ratios of synonymous to nonsynonymous substitution suggest that the RT of the elements is under strong purifying selection. However, a high proportion (approximately 15%) of elements with deleterious frameshifts and stop codons and an increase of the ratio of synonymous to nonsynonymous substitutions with divergence time show that in the short term this selection is relaxed. Despite the predominance of vertical transmission, sequence similarity of 83%-94% for SURL elements from hosts that have been separated for 200 Myr suggests four cases of apparent horizontal transfer between the ancestors of the extant echinoid species. In three additional cases, elements with identical RT sequences were found in sea urchin species separated for a minimum of 3 Myr. Thus, horizontal transfer plays a role in the evolution of this retrotransposon family.

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