A silent drive

The side effects associated with the repression of parasitic genetic sequences can shape genome evolution.

The dynamics of transposable elements (bubbles) are shaped by the genetic landscape in which they operate; this environment is determined by specific genes (the DNA sequence of the HP1a gene is shown here). Image credit: Leila Lin (CC BY 4.0).

All the instructions required for life are encoded in the set of DNA present in a cell. It therefore seems natural to think that every bit of this genetic information should serve the organism. And yet most species carry parasitic ‘transposable’ sequences, or transposons, whose only purpose is to multiply and insert themselves at other positions in the genome.

It is possible for cells to suppress these selfish elements. Chemical marks can be deposited onto the DNA to temporarily ‘silence’ transposons and prevent them from being able to move and replicate. However, this sometimes comes at a cost: the repressive chemical modifications can spread to nearby genes that are essential for the organism and perturb their function.

Strangely, the prevalence of transposons varies widely across the tree of life. These sequences form the majority of the genome of certain species – in fact, they represent about half of the human genetic information. But their abundance is much lower in other organisms, forming a measly 6% of the genome of puffer fish for instance. Even amongst fruit fly species, the prevalence of transposable elements can range between 2% and 25%. What explains such differences?

Huang et al. set out to examine this question through the lens of transposon silencing, systematically comparing how this process impacts nearby regions in six species of fruit flies. This revealed variations in the strength of the side effects associated with transposon silencing, resulting in different levels of perturbation on neighbouring genes. A stronger impact was associated with the species having fewer transposons in its genome, suggesting that an evolutionary pressure is at work to keep the abundance of transposons at a low level in these species. Further analyses showed that the genes which determine how silencing marks are distributed may also be responsible for the variations in the impact of transposon silencing. They could therefore be the ones driving differences in the abundance of transposons between species.

Overall, this work sheds light on the complex mechanisms shaping the evolution of genomes, and it may help to better understand how transposons are linked to processes such as aging and cancer.