, Volume 100, Issue 1-3, pp 109-117

Quasispecies in retrotransposons: a role for sequence variability in Tnt1 evolution

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Retroviral replication is a very error-prone process. Replication of retroviruses gives rise to populations of closely related but different genomes referred to as ‘quasispecies’. This huge swarm of different sequences constitutes a reservoir of potentially useful genomes in case of an environmental change, endowing retroviruses with extreme adaptability. Retrotransposons are mobile genetic elements closely related to retroviruses, and retrotransposition is as error prone as retroviral replication. The Tnt1 retrotransposon is present in hundreds of copies in the genome of tobacco that show a high level of sequence heterogeneity. When Tnt1 is expressed, its RNA is not a single sequence but a population of sequences displaying a quasispecies-like structure. This population structure gives to Tnt1, as in the case of retroviruses, a high sequence plasticity and an adaptive capacity. We propose this adaptivity as the major reason for Tnt1 maintenance in Nicotiana genomes and we discuss in this paper the importance of sequence variability for Tnt1 evolution.

This revised version was published online in August 2006 with corrections to the Cover Date.