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Plant J. 2005 Sep;43(6):799-810.

Origins, genetic organization and transcription of a family of non-autonomous helitron elements in maize.

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DuPont Crop Genetics Research, Experimental Station, Building E353, Wilmington, DE 19880-353, USA.


Helitron transposable elements carrying gene fragments were recently discovered in maize. These elements are frequently specific to certain maize lineages. Here we report evidence supporting the involvement of helitrons in the rapid evolution of the maize genome, in particular in the multiplication of related genic fragments across the genome. We describe a family of four closely related, non-autonomous maize helitrons and their insertion sites at four non-allelic genetic loci across the maize genome: two specific to the B73 inbred, and two to the Mo17 inbred. We propose the phylogeny of this helitron family and provide an approximate timeline of their genomic insertions. One of these elements, the Mo17-specific helitron on chromosome 1 (bin 1.07), is transcriptionally active, probably as a result of insertion in the vicinity of a promoter. Significantly, it produces an alternatively spliced and chimeric transcript joining together genic segments of different chromosomal origin contained within the helitron. This transcript potentially encodes up to four open reading frames. During the course of evolution, transcribed helitrons containing multiple gene fragments may occasionally give rise to new genes with novel biochemical functions by a combinatorial assembly of exons. Thus helitrons not only constantly reshape the genomic organization of maize and profoundly affect its genetic diversity, but also may be involved in the evolution of gene function.

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