Background: Many genomes contain a substantial number of transposable elements (TEs), a few of which are known to be involved in regulating gene expression. However, recent observations suggest that TEs may have played a very important role in the evolution of gene expression because many conserved non-genic sequences, some of which are know to be involved in gene regulation, resemble TEs.
Results: Here we investigate whether new TE insertions affect gene expression profiles by testing whether gene expression divergence between mouse and rat is correlated to the numbers of new transposable elements inserted near genes. We show that expression divergence is significantly correlated to the number of new LTR and SINE elements, but not to the numbers of LINEs. We also show that expression divergence is not significantly correlated to the numbers of ancestral TEs in most cases, which suggests that the correlations between expression divergence and the numbers of new TEs are causal in nature. We quantify the effect and estimate that TE insertion has accounted for approximately 20% (95% confidence interval: 12% to 26%) of all expression profile divergence in rodents.
Conclusions: We conclude that TE insertions may have had a major impact on the evolution of gene expression levels in rodents.