Mammalian small nucleolar RNAs are mobile genetic elements

PLoS Genet. 2006 Dec 8;2(12):e205. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.0020205. Epub 2006 Oct 20.


Small nucleolar RNAs (snoRNAs) of the H/ACA box and C/D box categories guide the pseudouridylation and the 2'-O-ribose methylation of ribosomal RNAs by forming short duplexes with their target. Similarly, small Cajal body-specific RNAs (scaRNAs) guide modifications of spliceosomal RNAs. The vast majority of vertebrate sno/scaRNAs are located in introns of genes transcribed by RNA polymerase II and processed by exonucleolytic trimming after splicing. A bioinformatic search for orthologues of human sno/scaRNAs in sequenced mammalian genomes reveals the presence of species- or lineage-specific sno/scaRNA retroposons (sno/scaRTs) characterized by an A-rich tail and an approximately 14-bp target site duplication that corresponds to their insertion site, as determined by interspecific genomic alignments. Three classes of snoRTs are defined based on the extent of intron and exon sequences from the snoRNA parental host gene they contain. SnoRTs frequently insert in gene introns in the sense orientation at genomic hot spots shared with other genetic mobile elements. Previously characterized human snoRNAs are encoded in retroposons whose parental copies can be identified by phylogenic analysis, showing that snoRTs can be faithfully processed. These results identify snoRNAs as a new family of mobile genetic elements. The insertion of new snoRNA copies might constitute a safeguard mechanism by which the biological activity of snoRNAs is maintained in spite of the risk of mutations in the parental copy. I furthermore propose that retroposition followed by genetic drift is a mechanism that increased snoRNA diversity during vertebrate evolution to eventually acquire new RNA-modification functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Genome
  • Humans
  • Interspersed Repetitive Sequences*
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • RNA, Ribosomal
  • RNA, Small Nucleolar / genetics*
  • Rats
  • Retroelements
  • Species Specificity


  • RNA, Ribosomal
  • RNA, Small Nucleolar
  • Retroelements

Associated data

  • RefSeq/NM_001043229
  • RefSeq/NM_007683
  • RefSeq/NM_012875
  • RefSeq/NM_017319
  • RefSeq/NM_024099
  • RefSeq/NM_028844
  • RefSeq/NM_030700
  • RefSeq/NM_080479
  • RefSeq/NM_207212