Giant Reverse Transcriptase-Encoding Transposable Elements at Telomeres

Mol Biol Evol. 2017 Sep 1;34(9):2245-2257. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msx159.


Transposable elements are omnipresent in eukaryotic genomes and have a profound impact on chromosome structure, function and evolution. Their structural and functional diversity is thought to be reasonably well-understood, especially in retroelements, which transpose via an RNA intermediate copied into cDNA by the element-encoded reverse transcriptase, and are characterized by a compact structure. Here, we report a novel type of expandable eukaryotic retroelements, which we call Terminons. These elements can attach to G-rich telomeric repeat overhangs at the chromosome ends, in a process apparently facilitated by complementary C-rich repeats at the 3'-end of the RNA template immediately adjacent to a hammerhead ribozyme motif. Terminon units, which can exceed 40 kb in length, display an unusually complex and diverse structure, and can form very long chains, with host genes often captured between units. As the principal polymerizing component, Terminons contain Athena reverse transcriptases previously described in bdelloid rotifers and belonging to the enigmatic group of Penelope-like elements, but can additionally accumulate multiple cooriented ORFs, including DEDDy 3'-exonucleases, GDSL esterases/lipases, GIY-YIG-like endonucleases, rolling-circle replication initiator (Rep) proteins, and putatively structural ORFs with coiled-coil motifs and transmembrane domains. The extraordinary length and complexity of Terminons and the high degree of interfamily variability in their ORF content challenge the current views on the structural organization of eukaryotic retroelements, and highlight their possible connections with the viral world and the implications for the elevated frequency of gene transfer.

Keywords: bdelloid rotifers; hammerhead ribozymes; horizontal gene transfer; retrotransposons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics
  • Eukaryotic Cells / metabolism
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal / genetics
  • Open Reading Frames
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA
  • RNA, Catalytic / genetics
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase / genetics
  • Retroelements / genetics
  • Rotifera / genetics
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Telomere / genetics*
  • Telomere / metabolism


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • RNA, Catalytic
  • Retroelements
  • hammerhead ribozyme
  • RNA
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase