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The role of transposable elements in the evolution of non-mammalian vertebrates and invertebrates

Noa Sela12, Eddo Kim1 and Gil Ast1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Human Molecular Genetics, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel

2 Department of Biology I, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (LMU) GroƟhaderner Str. 2, D-82152, Planegg-Martinsried, Germany

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Genome Biology 2010, 11:R59  doi:10.1186/gb-2010-11-6-r59

Published: 2 June 2010



Transposable elements (TEs) have played an important role in the diversification and enrichment of mammalian transcriptomes through various mechanisms such as exonization and intronization (the birth of new exons/introns from previously intronic/exonic sequences, respectively), and insertion into first and last exons. However, no extensive analysis has compared the effects of TEs on the transcriptomes of mammals, non-mammalian vertebrates and invertebrates.


We analyzed the influence of TEs on the transcriptomes of five species, three invertebrates and two non-mammalian vertebrates. Compared to previously analyzed mammals, there were lower levels of TE introduction into introns, significantly lower numbers of exonizations originating from TEs and a lower percentage of TE insertion within the first and last exons. Although the transcriptomes of vertebrates exhibit significant levels of exonization of TEs, only anecdotal cases were found in invertebrates. In vertebrates, as in mammals, the exonized TEs are mostly alternatively spliced, indicating that selective pressure maintains the original mRNA product generated from such genes.


Exonization of TEs is widespread in mammals, less so in non-mammalian vertebrates, and very low in invertebrates. We assume that the exonization process depends on the length of introns. Vertebrates, unlike invertebrates, are characterized by long introns and short internal exons. Our results suggest that there is a direct link between the length of introns and exonization of TEs and that this process became more prevalent following the appearance of mammals.