Turning junk into gold: domestication of transposable elements and the creation of new genes in eukaryotes

Bioessays. 2006 Sep;28(9):913-22. doi: 10.1002/bies.20452.


Autonomous transposable elements, generally considered as junk and selfish, encode transposition proteins that can bind, copy, break, join or degrade nucleic acids as well as process or interact with other proteins. Such a repertoire of activities might be of interest for the host cell. There is indeed substantial evidence that mobile DNA can serve as a dynamic reservoir for new cellular functions. Transposable element genes encoding transposase, integrase, reverse transcriptase as well as structural and envelope proteins have been repeatedly recruited by their host during evolution in most eukaryotic lineages. Such domesticated sequences protect us against infections, are necessary for our reproduction, allow the replication of our chromosomes and control cell proliferation and death; others are essential for plant development. Many new candidates for domesticated sequences have been revealed by sequencing projects. Their functional analysis will uncover new aspects of evolutionary alchemy, the turning of junk into gold within genomes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Eukaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Retroelements / genetics
  • Telomerase / metabolism
  • Transposases / metabolism


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Retroelements
  • Transposases
  • Telomerase