The Piwi-interacting RNA (piRNA) pathway defends animal genomes against the harmful consequences of transposable element (TE) infection by imposing small-RNA-mediated silencing. Because silencing is targeted by TE-derived piRNAs, piRNA production is posited to be central to the evolution of genome defense. We harnessed genomic data sets from Drosophila melanogaster, including genome-wide measures of piRNA, mRNA, and genomic abundance, along with estimates of age structure and risk of ectopic recombination, to address fundamental questions about the functional and evolutionary relationships between TE families and their regulatory piRNAs. We demonstrate that mRNA transcript abundance, robustness of "ping-pong" amplification, and representation in piRNA clusters together explain the majority of variation in piRNA abundance between TE families, providing the first robust statistical support for the prevailing model of piRNA biogenesis. Intriguingly, we also discover that the most transpositionally active TE families, with the greatest capacity to induce harmful mutations or disrupt gametogenesis, are not necessarily the most abundant among piRNAs. Rather, the level of piRNA targeting is largely independent of recent transposition rate for active TE families, but is rapidly lost for inactive TEs. These observations are consistent with population genetic theory that suggests a limited selective advantage for host repression of transposition. Additionally, we find no evidence that piRNA targeting responds to selection against a second major cost of TE infection: ectopic recombination between TE insertions. Our observations confirm the pivotal role of piRNA-mediated silencing in defending the genome against selfish transposition, yet also suggest limits to the optimization of host genome defense.
Keywords: RNAi; genome evolution; transposable elements.