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J Neurosci. 2013 Nov 6;33(45):17577-86. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3369-13.2013.

The role of transposable elements in health and diseases of the central nervous system.

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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, Mater Medical Research Institute, South Brisbane Queensland, Australia, 4101, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, New York 11724, University of Texas at Austin, Waggoner Center for Alcohol & Addiction Research and the College of Pharmacy, Austin, Texas 78712, and The Salk Institute, Laboratory of Genetics, La Jolla, California 92037.


First discovered in maize by Barbara McClintock in the 1940s, transposable elements (TEs) are DNA sequences that in some cases have the ability to move along chromosomes or "transpose" in the genome. This revolutionary finding was initially met with resistance by the scientific community and viewed by some as heretical. A large body of knowledge has accumulated over the last 60 years on the biology of TEs. Indeed, it is now known that TEs can generate genomic instability and reconfigure gene expression networks both in the germline and somatic cells. This review highlights recent findings on the role of TEs in health and diseases of the CNS, which were presented at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience meeting. The work of the speakers in this symposium shows that TEs are expressed and active in the brain, challenging the dogma that neuronal genomes are static and revealing that they are susceptible to somatic genomic alterations. These new findings on TE expression and function in the CNS have major implications for understanding the neuroplasticity of the brain, which could hypothetically have a role in shaping individual behavior and contribute to vulnerability to disease.

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