Background: Penelope-like elements (PLEs) are an enigmatic group of retroelements sharing a common ancestor with telomerase reverse transcriptases. In our previous studies, we identified endonuclease-deficient PLEs that are associated with telomeres in bdelloid rotifers, small freshwater invertebrates best known for their long-term asexuality and high foreign DNA content. Completion of the high-quality draft genome sequence of the bdelloid rotifer Adineta vaga provides us with the opportunity to examine its genomic transposable element (TE) content, as well as TE impact on genome function and evolution.
Results: We performed an exhaustive search of the A. vaga genome assembly, aimed at identification of canonical PLEs combining both the reverse transcriptase (RT) and the GIY-YIG endonuclease (EN) domains. We find that the RT/EN-containing Penelope families co-exist in the A. vaga genome with the EN-deficient RT-containing Athena retroelements. Canonical PLEs are present at very low copy numbers, often as a single-copy, and there is no evidence that they might preferentially co-mobilize EN-deficient PLEs. We also find that Penelope elements can participate in expansion of A. vaga multigene families via trans-action of their enzymatic machinery, as evidenced by identification of intron-containing host genes framed by the Penelope terminal repeats and characteristic target-site duplications generated upon insertion. In addition, we find that Penelope open reading frames (ORFs) in several families have incorporated long stretches of coding sequence several hundred amino acids (aa) in length that are highly enriched in asparagine residues, a phenomenon not observed in other retrotransposons.
Conclusions: Our results show that, despite their low abundance and low transcriptional activity in the A. vaga genome, endonuclease-containing Penelope elements can participate in expansion of host multigene families. We conclude that the terminal repeats represent the cis-acting sequences required for mobilization of the intervening region in trans by the Penelope-encoded enzymatic activities. We also hypothesize that the unusual capture of long N-rich segments by the Penelope ORF occurs as a consequence of peculiarities of its replication mechanism. These findings emphasize the unconventional nature of Penelope retrotransposons, which, in contrast to all other retrotransposon types, are capable of dispersing intron-containing genes, thereby questioning the validity of traditional estimates of gene retrocopies in PLE-containing eukaryotic genomes.