Transposable element (TE) sequences, once thought to be merely selfish or parasitic members of the genomic community, have been shown to contribute a wide variety of functional sequences to their host genomes. Analysis of complete genome sequences have turned up numerous cases where TE sequences have been incorporated as exons into mRNAs, and it is widely assumed that such 'exonized' TEs encode protein sequences. However, the extent to which TE-derived sequences actually encode proteins is unknown and a matter of some controversy. We have tried to address this outstanding issue from two perspectives: i-by evaluating ascertainment biases related to the search methods used to uncover TE-derived protein coding sequences (CDS) and ii-through a probabilistic codon-frequency based analysis of the protein coding potential of TE-derived exons.
We compared the ability of three classes of sequence similarity search methods to detect TE-derived sequences among data sets of experimentally characterized proteins: 1-a profile-based hidden Markov model (HMM) approach, 2-BLAST methods and 3-RepeatMasker. Profile based methods are more sensitive and more selective than the other methods evaluated. However, the application of profile-based search methods to the detection of TE-derived sequences among well-curated experimentally characterized protein data sets did not turn up many more cases than had been previously detected and nowhere near as many cases as recent genome-wide searches have. We observed that the different search methods used were complementary in the sense that they yielded largely non-overlapping sets of hits and differed in their ability to recover known cases of TE-derived CDS. The probabilistic analysis of TE-derived exon sequences indicates that these sequences have low protein coding potential on average. In particular, non-autonomous TEs that do not encode protein sequences, such as Alu elements, are frequently exonized but unlikely to encode protein sequences.
The exaptation of the numerous TE sequences found in exons as bona fide protein coding sequences may prove to be far less common than has been suggested by the analysis of complete genomes. We hypothesize that many exonized TE sequences actually function as post-transcriptional regulators of gene expression, rather than coding sequences, which may act through a variety of double stranded RNA related regulatory pathways. Indeed, their relatively high copy numbers and similarity to sequences dispersed throughout the genome suggests that exonized TE sequences could serve as master regulators with a wide scope of regulatory influence.
This article was reviewed by Itai Yanai, Kateryna D. Makova, Melissa Wilson (nominated by Kateryna D. Makova) and Cedric Feschotte (nominated by John M. Logsdon Jr.).