Send to

Choose Destination
Genome Biol Evol. 2015 Aug 6;7(8):2445-57. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evv152.

Multilevel Selection Theory and the Evolutionary Functions of Transposable Elements.

Author information

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada


One of several issues at play in the renewed debate over "junk DNA" is the organizational level at which genomic features might be seen as selected, and thus to exhibit function, as etiologically defined. The intuition frequently expressed by molecular geneticists that junk DNA is functional because it serves to "speed evolution" or as an "evolutionary repository" could be recast as a claim about selection between species (or clades) rather than within them, but this is not often done. Here, we review general arguments for the importance of selection at levels above that of organisms in evolution, and develop them further for a common genomic feature: the carriage of transposable elements (TEs). In many species, not least our own, TEs comprise a large fraction of all nuclear DNA, and whether they individually or collectively contribute to fitness--or are instead junk--is a subject of ongoing contestation. Even if TEs generally owe their origin to selfish selection at the lowest level (that of genomes), their prevalence in extant organisms and the prevalence of extant organisms bearing them must also respond to selection within species (on organismal fitness) and between species (on rates of speciation and extinction). At an even higher level, the persistence of clades may be affected (positively or negatively) by TE carriage. If indeed TEs speed evolution, it is at these higher levels of selection that such a function might best be attributed to them as a class.


ENCODE; evolution; genomes; multi-level selection; transposable elements

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Silverchair Information Systems Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center