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Annu Rev Genet. 2003;37:485-511.

Retrotransposons provide an evolutionarily robust non-telomerase mechanism to maintain telomeres.

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Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


Telomere molecular biology is far more complex than originally thought. Understanding biological systems is aided by study of evolutionary variants, and Drosophila telomeres are remarkable variants. Drosophila lack telomerase and the arrays of simple repeats generated by telomerase in almost all other organisms; instead, Drosophila telomeres are long tandem arrays of two non-LTR retrotransposons, HeT-A and TART. These are the first transposable elements found to have a bona fide role in cell structure, revealing an unexpected link between telomeres and what is generally considered to be parasitic DNA. In addition to providing insight into the cellular functions performed by telomeres, analysis of HeT-A and TART is providing insight into the evolution of chromosomes, retrotransposons, and retroviruses. Recent studies show that retrotransposon telomeres constitute a robust system for maintaining chromosome ends. These telomeres are now known to predate the separation of extant Drosophila species, allowing ample time for elements and hosts to coevolve interesting mechanisms.

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