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Nat Genet. 1999 Feb;21(2):209-12.

Taming of transposable elements by homology-dependent gene silencing.

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Unité des Rétrovirus Endogènes et Eléments Rétroïdes des Eucaryotes Supérieurs, CNRS UMR 1573, Institut Gustave Roussy, Villejuif, France.


Transposable elements can invade virgin genomes within a few generations, after which the elements are 'tamed' and retain only limited transpositional activity. Introduction of the I element, a transposon similar to mammalian LINE elements, into Drosophila melanogaster genomes devoid of such elements initially results in high-frequency transposition of the incoming transposon, high mutation rate, chromosomal nondisjunction and female sterility, a syndrome referred to as hybrid dysgenesis (for review, see refs 2-4); a related syndrome has also been described in mammals. High-frequency transposition is transient, as the number of I elements reaches a finite value and transposition ceases after approximately ten generations. It has been proposed that the I elements encode a factor that negatively regulates their own transcription, but evidence for such a mechanism is lacking. Using the hybrid dysgenesis syndrome in Drosophila as a model, we show here that transpositional activity of the I element can be repressed by prior introduction of transgenes expressing a small internal region of the I element. This autoregulation presents features characteristic of homology-dependent gene silencing, a process known as cosuppression. Repression does not require any translatable sequence, its severity correlates with transgene copy number and it develops in a generation-dependent manner via germline transmission of a silencing effector in females only. These results demonstrate that transposable elements are prone to and can be tamed by homology-dependent gene silencing, a process that may have emerged during the course of evolution as a specific defense mechanism against these elements.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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