An Ancient Clade of Penelope-Like Retroelements with Permuted Domains Is Present in the Green Lineage and Protists, and Dominates Many Invertebrate Genomes

Mol Biol Evol. 2021 Oct 27;38(11):5005-5020. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msab225.


Penelope-like elements (PLEs) are an enigmatic clade of retrotransposons whose reverse transcriptases (RTs) share a most recent common ancestor with telomerase RTs. The single ORF of canonical endonuclease (EN)+ PLEs encodes RT and a C-terminal GIY-YIG EN that enables intrachromosomal integration, whereas EN- PLEs lack EN and are generally restricted to chromosome termini. EN+ PLEs have only been found in animals, except for one case of horizontal transfer to conifers, whereas EN- PLEs occur in several kingdoms. Here, we report a new, deep-branching PLE clade with a permuted domain order, whereby an N-terminal GIY-YIG EN is linked to a C-terminal RT by a short domain with a characteristic CxC motif. These N-terminal EN+ PLEs share a structural organization, including pseudo-LTRs and complex tandem/inverted insertions, with canonical EN+ PLEs from Penelope/Poseidon, Neptune, and Nematis clades, and show insertion bias for microsatellites, but lack canonical hammerhead ribozyme motifs. However, their phylogenetic distribution is much broader. The Naiads, found in numerous invertebrate phyla, can reach tens of thousands of copies per genome. In spiders and clams, Naiads independently evolved to encode selenoproteins containing multiple selenocysteines. Chlamys, which lack the CCHH motif universal to PLE ENs, occur in green algae, spike mosses (targeting ribosomal DNA), and slime molds. Unlike canonical PLEs, RTs of N-terminal EN+ PLEs contain the insertion-in-fingers domain (IFD), strengthening the link between PLEs and telomerases. Additionally, we describe Hydra, a novel metazoan C-terminal EN+ clade. Overall, we conclude that PLE diversity, taxonomic distribution, and abundance are comparable with non-LTR and LTR-retrotransposons.

Keywords: GIY–YIG endonuclease; microsatellites; retrotransposons; reverse transcriptase; selenoproteins; transposable elements.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genome
  • Invertebrates* / genetics
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase / genetics
  • Retroelements* / genetics


  • Retroelements
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase