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PLoS Biol. 2005 Jun;3(6):e181. Epub 2005 May 24.

RAG1 core and V(D)J recombination signal sequences were derived from Transib transposons.

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Genetic Information Research Institute, Mountain View, California, USA.


The V(D)J recombination reaction in jawed vertebrates is catalyzed by the RAG1 and RAG2 proteins, which are believed to have emerged approximately 500 million years ago from transposon-encoded proteins. Yet no transposase sequence similar to RAG1 or RAG2 has been found. Here we show that the approximately 600-amino acid "core" region of RAG1 required for its catalytic activity is significantly similar to the transposase encoded by DNA transposons that belong to the Transib superfamily. This superfamily was discovered recently based on computational analysis of the fruit fly and African malaria mosquito genomes. Transib transposons also are present in the genomes of sea urchin, yellow fever mosquito, silkworm, dog hookworm, hydra, and soybean rust. We demonstrate that recombination signal sequences (RSSs) were derived from terminal inverted repeats of an ancient Transib transposon. Furthermore, the critical DDE catalytic triad of RAG1 is shared with the Transib transposase as part of conserved motifs. We also studied several divergent proteins encoded by the sea urchin and lancelet genomes that are 25%-30% identical to the RAG1 N-terminal domain and the RAG1 core. Our results provide the first direct evidence linking RAG1 and RSSs to a specific superfamily of DNA transposons and indicate that the V(D)J machinery evolved from transposons. We propose that only the RAG1 core was derived from the Transib transposase, whereas the N-terminal domain was assembled from separate proteins of unknown function that may still be active in sea urchin, lancelet, hydra, and starlet sea anemone. We also suggest that the RAG2 protein was not encoded by ancient Transib transposons but emerged in jawed vertebrates as a counterpart of RAG1 necessary for the V(D)J recombination reaction.

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