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Nucleic Acids Res. 1998 October 15; 26(20): 4541–4550.
PMCID: PMC147893

Does SINE evolution preclude Alu function?


The evolution, mobility and deleterious genetic effects of human Alus are fairly well understood. The complexity of regulated transcriptional expression of Alus is becoming apparent and insight into the mechanism of retrotransposition is emerging. Unresolved questions concern why mobile, highly repetitive short interspersed elements (SINEs) have been tolerated throughout evolution and why and how families of such sequences are periodically replaced. Either certain SINEs are more successful genomic parasites or positive selection drives their relative success and genomic maintenance. A complete understanding of the evolutionary dynamics and significance of SINEs requires determining whether or not they have a function(s). Recent evidence suggests two possibilities, one concerning DNA and the other RNA. Dispersed Alus exhibit remarkable tissue-specific differences in the level of their 5-methylcytosine content. Differences in Alu methylation in the male and female germlines suggest that Alu DNA may be involved in either the unique chromatin organization of sperm or signaling events in the early embryo. Alu RNA is increased by cellular insults and stimulates protein synthesis by inhibiting PKR, the eIF2 kinase that is regulated by double-stranded RNA. PKR serves other roles potentially linking Alu RNA to a variety of vital cell functions. Since Alus have appeared only recently within the primate lineage, this proposal provokes the challenging question of how Alu RNA could have possibly assumed a significant role in cell physiology.

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