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Virus Genes. 1995;11(2-3):163-79.

Reverse transcriptase: mediator of genomic plasticity.

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Institute for Experimental Pathology, ZMBE University of M√ľnster, Germany.


Reverse transcription has been an important mediator of genomic change. This influence dates back more than three billion years, when the RNA genome was converted into the DNA genome. While the current cellular role(s) of reverse transcriptase are not yet completely understood, it has become clear over the last few years that this enzyme is still responsible for generating significant genomic change and that its activities are one of the driving forces of evolution. Reverse transcriptase generates, for example, extra gene copies (retrogenes), using as a template mature messenger RNAs. Such retrogenes do not always end up as nonfunctional pseudogenes but form, after reinsertion into the genome, new unions with resident promoter elements that may alter the gene's temporal and/or spatial expression levels. More frequently, reverse transcriptase produces copies of nonmessenger RNAs, such as small nuclear or cytoplasmic RNAs. Extremely high copy numbers can be generated by this process. The resulting reinserted DNA copies are therefore referred to as short interspersed repetitive elements (SINEs). SINEs have long been considered selfish DNA, littering the genome via exponential propagation but not contributing to the host's fitness. Many SINEs, however, can give rise to novel genes encoding small RNAs, and are the migrant carriers of numerous control elements and sequence motifs that can equip resident genes with novel regulatory elements [Brosius J. and Gould S.J., Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 89, 10706-10710, 1992]. Retrosequences, such as SINEs and portions of retroelements (e.g., long terminal repeats, LTRs), are capable of donating sequence motifs for nucleosome positioning, DNA methylation, transcriptional enhancers and silencers, poly(A) addition sequences, determinants of RNA stability or transport, splice sites, and even amino acid codons for incorporation into open reading frames as novel protein domains. Retroposition can therefore be considered as a major pacemaker for evolution (including speciation). Retroposons, with their unique properties and actions, form the molecular basis of important evolutionary concepts, such as exaptation [Gould S.J. and Vrba E., Paleobiology 8, 4-15, 1982] and punctuated equilibrium [Elredge N. and Gould S.J. in Schopf T.J.M. (ed). Models in Paleobiology. Freeman, Cooper, San Francisco, 1972, pp. 82-115].

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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