The 300 bp dimeric repeats digestible by AluI were discovered in 1979. Since then, Alu were involved in the most fundamental epigenetic mechanisms, namely reprogramming, pluripotency, imprinting and mosaicism. These Alu encode a family of retrotransposons transcribed by the RNA Pol III machinery, notably when the cytosines that constitute their sequences are de-methylated. Then, Alu hijack the functions of ORF2 encoded by another transposons named L1 during reverse transcription and integration into new sites. That mechanism functions as a complex genetic parasite able to copy-paste Alu sequences. Doing that, Alu have modified even the size of the human genome, as well as of other primate genomes, during 65 million years of co-evolution. Actually, one germline retro-transposition still occurs each 20 births. Thus, Alu continue to modify our human genome nowadays and were implicated in de novo mutation causing diseases including deletions, duplications and rearrangements. Most recently, retrotransposons were found to trigger neuronal diversity by inducing mosaicism in the brain. Finally, boosted during viral infections, Alu clearly interact with the innate immune system. The purpose of that review is to give a condensed overview of all these major findings that concern the fascinating physiology of Alu from their discovery up to the current knowledge.
Keywords: Alu; DNA methylation; Imprinting; Mosaicism; Pluripotency; Reprogramming; Retrotransposons.