Transposable elements: powerful facilitators of evolution

Bioessays. 2009 Jul;31(7):703-14. doi: 10.1002/bies.200800219.


Transposable elements (TEs) are powerful facilitators of genome evolution, and hence of phenotypic diversity as they can cause genetic changes of great magnitude and variety. TEs are ubiquitous and extremely ancient, and although harmful to some individuals, they can be very beneficial to lineages. TEs can build, sculpt, and reformat genomes by both active and passive means. Lineages with active TEs or with abundant homogeneous inactive populations of TEs that can act passively by causing ectopic recombination are potentially fecund, adaptable, and taxonate readily. Conversely, taxa deficient in TEs or possessing heterogeneous populations of inactive TEs may be well adapted in their niche, but tend to prolonged stasis and may risk extinction by lacking the capacity to adapt to change, or diversify. Because of recurring intermittent waves of TE infestation, available data indicate a compatibility with punctuated equilibrium, in keeping with widely accepted interpretations of evidence from the fossil record. We propose a general and holistic synthesis on how the presence of TEs within genomes makes them flexible and dynamic, so that genomes themselves are powerful facilitators of their own evolution.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Embryonic Development / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genome / genetics
  • Stress, Physiological / genetics


  • DNA Transposable Elements