Multicellular eukaryotic genomes show enormous differences in size. A substantial part of this variation is due to the presence of transposable elements (TEs). They contribute significantly to a cell's mass of DNA and have the potential to become involved in host gene control. We argue that the suppression of their activities by methylation of the C-phosphate-G (CpG) dinucleotide in DNA is essential for their long-term accommodation in the host genome and, therefore, to its expansion. An inevitable consequence of cytosine methylation is an increase in C-to-T transition mutations via deamination, which causes CpG loss. Cytosine deamination is often needed for TEs to take on regulatory functions in the host genome. Our study of the whole-genome sequences of 53 organisms showed a positive correlation between the size of a genome and the percentage of TEs it contains, as well as a negative correlation between size and the CpG observed/expected (O/E) ratio in both TEs and the host DNA. TEs are seldom found at promoters and transcription start sites, but they are found more at enhancers, particularly after they have accumulated C-to-T and other mutations. Therefore, the methylation of TE DNA allows for genome expansion and also leads to new opportunities for gene control by TE-based regulatory sites.
Keywords: DNA methylation; genome size; transposable element.
Copyright © 2020 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.