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Genome Biol Evol. 2011;3:259-71. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evr015. Epub 2011 Feb 28.

Effect of the transposable element environment of human genes on gene length and expression.

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School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, GA, USA.


Independent lines of investigation have documented effects of both transposable elements (TEs) and gene length (GL) on gene expression. However, TE gene fractions are highly correlated with GL, suggesting that they cannot be considered independently. We evaluated the TE environment of human genes and GL jointly in an attempt to tease apart their relative effects. TE gene fractions and GL were compared with the overall level of gene expression and the breadth of expression across tissues. GL is strongly correlated with overall expression level but weakly correlated with the breadth of expression, confirming the selection hypothesis that attributes the compactness of highly expressed genes to selection for economy of transcription. However, TE gene fractions overall, and for the L1 family in particular, show stronger anticorrelations with expression level than GL, indicating that GL may not be the most important target of selection for transcriptional economy. These results suggest a specific mechanism, removal of TEs, by which highly expressed genes are selectively tuned for efficiency. MIR elements are the only family of TEs with gene fractions that show a positive correlation with tissue-specific expression, suggesting that they may provide regulatory sequences that help to control human gene expression. Consistent with this notion, MIR fractions are relatively enriched close to transcription start sites and associated with coexpression in specific sets of related tissues. Our results confirm the overall relevance of the TE environment to gene expression and point to distinct mechanisms by which different TE families may contribute to gene regulation.

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