The majority of primate-specific regulatory sequences are derived from transposable elements

PLoS Genet. 2013 May;9(5):e1003504. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003504. Epub 2013 May 9.


Although emerging evidence suggests that transposable elements (TEs) have contributed novel regulatory elements to the human genome, their global impact on transcriptional networks remains largely uncharacterized. Here we show that TEs have contributed to the human genome nearly half of its active elements. Using DNase I hypersensitivity data sets from ENCODE in normal, embryonic, and cancer cells, we found that 44% of open chromatin regions were in TEs and that this proportion reached 63% for primate-specific regions. We also showed that distinct subfamilies of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) contributed significantly more accessible regions than expected by chance, with up to 80% of their instances in open chromatin. Based on these results, we further characterized 2,150 TE subfamily-transcription factor pairs that were bound in vivo or enriched for specific binding motifs, and observed that TEs contributing to open chromatin had higher levels of sequence conservation. We also showed that thousands of ERV-derived sequences were activated in a cell type-specific manner, especially in embryonic and cancer cells, and we demonstrated that this activity was associated with cell type-specific expression of neighboring genes. Taken together, these results demonstrate that TEs, and in particular ERVs, have contributed hundreds of thousands of novel regulatory elements to the primate lineage and reshaped the human transcriptional landscape.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Deoxyribonuclease I / genetics
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Regulatory Networks / genetics
  • Genome, Human
  • Humans
  • Primates / genetics
  • Regulatory Sequences, Nucleic Acid / genetics*
  • Species Specificity


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Deoxyribonuclease I