Taming of transposable elements by homology-dependent gene silencing

Nat Genet. 1999 Feb;21(2):209-12. doi: 10.1038/5997.


Transposable elements can invade virgin genomes within a few generations, after which the elements are 'tamed' and retain only limited transpositional activity. Introduction of the I element, a transposon similar to mammalian LINE elements, into Drosophila melanogaster genomes devoid of such elements initially results in high-frequency transposition of the incoming transposon, high mutation rate, chromosomal nondisjunction and female sterility, a syndrome referred to as hybrid dysgenesis (for review, see refs 2-4); a related syndrome has also been described in mammals. High-frequency transposition is transient, as the number of I elements reaches a finite value and transposition ceases after approximately ten generations. It has been proposed that the I elements encode a factor that negatively regulates their own transcription, but evidence for such a mechanism is lacking. Using the hybrid dysgenesis syndrome in Drosophila as a model, we show here that transpositional activity of the I element can be repressed by prior introduction of transgenes expressing a small internal region of the I element. This autoregulation presents features characteristic of homology-dependent gene silencing, a process known as cosuppression. Repression does not require any translatable sequence, its severity correlates with transgene copy number and it develops in a generation-dependent manner via germline transmission of a silencing effector in females only. These results demonstrate that transposable elements are prone to and can be tamed by homology-dependent gene silencing, a process that may have emerged during the course of evolution as a specific defense mechanism against these elements.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Genetically Modified / genetics
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Drosophila melanogaster / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Genes, Lethal
  • Male
  • Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid*
  • Sex Factors
  • Transgenes


  • DNA Transposable Elements