Transposable element origins of epigenetic gene regulation

Curr Opin Plant Biol. 2011 Apr;14(2):156-61. doi: 10.1016/j.pbi.2011.01.003. Epub 2011 Apr 4.


Transposable elements (TEs) are massively abundant and unstable in all plant genomes, but are mostly silent because of epigenetic suppression. Because all known epigenetic pathways act on all TEs, it is likely that the specialized epigenetic regulation of regular host genes (RHGs) was co-opted from this ubiquitous need for the silencing of TEs and viruses. With their internally repetitive and rearranging structures, and the acquisition of fragments of RHGs, the expression of TEs commonly makes antisense RNAs for both TE genes and RHGs. These antisense RNAs, particularly from heterochromatic reservoirs of 'zombie' TEs that are rearranged to form variously internally repetitive structures, may be advantageous because their induction will help rapidly suppress active TEs of the same family. RHG fragments within rapidly rearranging TEs may also provide the raw material for the ongoing generation of miRNA genes. TE gene expression is regulated by both environmental and developmental signals, and insertions can place nearby RHGs under the regulation (both standard and epigenetic) of the TE. The ubiquity of TEs, their frequent preferential association with RHGs, and their ability to be programmed by epigenetic signals all indicate that RGHs have nearly unlimited access to novel regulatory cassettes to assist plant adaptation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Plant*
  • Gene Silencing
  • Genome, Plant
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • Plants / genetics*


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • MicroRNAs