Transposable Element Targeting by piRNAs in Laurasiatherians with Distinct Transposable Element Histories

Genome Biol Evol. 2016 May 9;8(5):1327-37. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evw078.


PIWI proteins and PIWI-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) are part of a cellular pathway that has evolved to protect genomes against the proliferation of transposable elements (TEs). PIWIs and piRNAs assemble into complexes that are involved in epigenetic and post-transcriptional repression of TEs. Most of our understanding of the mechanisms of piRNA-mediated TE silencing comes from fruit fly and mouse models. However, even in these well-studied animals it is unclear how piRNA responses relate to variable TE expression and whether the strength of the piRNA response affects TE content over time. Here, we assessed the evolutionary interactions between TE and piRNAs in a statistical framework using three nonmodel laurasiatherian mammals as a study system: dog, horse, and a vesper bat. These three species diverged ∼80 million years ago and have distinct genomic TE contents. By comparing species with distinct TE landscapes, we aimed to identify clear relationships among TE content, expression, and piRNAs. We found that the TE subfamilies that are the most transcribed appear to elicit the strongest "ping-pong" response. This was most evident among long interspersed elements, but the relationships between expression and ping-pong pilRNA (piRNA-like) expression were more complex among SINEs. SINE transcripts were equally abundant in the dog and horse yet new SINE insertions were relatively rare in the horse genome, where we identified a stronger piRNA response. Our analyses suggest that the piRNA response can have a strong impact on the TE composition of a genome. However, our results also suggest that the presence of a robust piRNA response is apparently not sufficient to stop TE mobilization and accumulation.

Keywords: PIWI proteins; comparative genomics; evolution; ping-pong cycle; small RNAs.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chiroptera
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Dogs
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Silencing*
  • Horses
  • Mice
  • RNA, Small Interfering / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • RNA, Small Interfering