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Med Hypotheses. 2018 Sep;118:44-54. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2018.05.015. Epub 2018 May 19.

Transposable elements, placental development, and oocyte activation: Cellular stress and AMPK links jumping genes with the creation of human life.

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Finley BioSciences, Houston, TX 77042-4539, United States. Electronic address:


Transposable elements (TEs), also known as "jumping genes", are DNA sequences first described by Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock that comprise nearly half of the human genome and are able to transpose or move from one genomic location to another. As McClintock also noted that a genome "shock" or stress may induce TE activation and transposition, accumulating evidence suggests that cellular stress (e.g. mediated by increases in intracellular reactive oxygen species [ROS] and calcium [Ca2+], etc.) induces TE mobilization in several model organisms and L1s (a member of the retrotransposon class of TEs) are active and capable of retrotransposition in human oocytes, human sperm, and in human neural progenitor cells. Cellular stress also plays a critical role in human placental development, with cytotrophoblast (CTB) differentiation leading to the formation of the syncytiotrophoblast (STB), a cellular layer that facilitates nutrient and gas exchange between the mother and the fetus. Syncytin-1, a protein that promotes fusion of CTB cells and is necessary for STB formation, and its receptor is found in human sperm and human oocytes, respectively, and increases in ROS and Ca2+ promote trophoblast differentiation and syncytin-1 expression. Cellular stress is also essential in promoting human oocyte maturation and activation which, similar to TE mobilization, can be induced by compounds that increase intracellular Ca2+ and ROS levels. AMPK is a master metabolic regulator activated by increases in ROS, Ca2+, and/or an AMP(ADP)/ATP ratio increase, etc. as well as compounds that induce L1 mobilization in human cells. AMPK knockdown inhibits trophoblast differentiation and AMPK-activating compounds that promote L1 mobility also enhance trophoblast differentiation. Cellular stressors that induce TE mobilization (e.g. heat shock) also promote oocyte maturation in an AMPK-dependent manner and the antibiotic ionomycin activates AMPK, promotes TE activation, and induces human oocyte activation, producing normal, healthy children. Metformin promotes AMPK-dependent telomerase activation (critical for telomere maintenance) and induces activation of the endonuclease RAG1 (promotes DNA cleavage and transposition) via AMPK. Both RAG1 and telomerase are derived from TEs. It is our hypothesis that cellular stress and AMPK links TE activation and transposition with placental development and oocyte activation, facilitating both human genome evolution and the creation of all human life. We also propose the novel observation that various cellular stress-inducing compounds (e.g. metformin, resveratrol, etc.) may facilitate beneficial TE activation and transposition and enhance fertilization and embryological development through a common mechanism of AMPK activation.


AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK); Acrosome; Anesthesia; Calcium (Ca2+); Coma; Consciousness; Electroencephalogram (EEG); HIV-1 latency; Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome (HGPS); Ketamine; LINE-1 (L1); Long-term potentiation (LTP); Metformin; Paradoxical excitation; Propofol; Reactive oxygen species (ROS); Resveratrol; Retrotransposon; Telomerase; Transposable element (TE)

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