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Trends Ecol Evol. 2004 Oct;19(10):545-53.

SINEs of speciation: tracking lineages with retroposons.

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Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


The value of short interspersed elements (SINEs) for diagnosing common ancestry is being expanded to examine the differential sorting of lineages through the course of speciation events. Because most SINEs are neutral markers of identical descent, are not precisely excised from the genome and have a known ancestral condition, they are advantageous for reconciling gene trees and species trees with minimal phylogenetic error. A population perspective on SINE evolution combined with coalescence theory provides a context for investigating the phenomenon of ancestral polymorphism and its role in producing incongruent SINE insertion patterns among multiple loci. Studies of human Alu repeats demonstrate the value of young polymorphic SINEs for assessing human genomic diversity and tracking ancient demographics of human populations, whereas incongruent insertion patterns revealed by older fixed SINE loci, such as those in African cichlid fishes, contain information that might help identify ancient radiations that are otherwise obscured by accumulated mutations in sequence data. Here, we review the utility of retroposons for inferring common ancestry, discuss limits to the method, and clarify confusion by providing examples from the literature that illustrate how discordant multi-locus insertion patterns of retroelements can indicate lineage-sorting events that should not be misinterpreted as phylogenetic noise.


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