Transposable elements as activators of cryptic genes in E. coli
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The concept of transposable elements (TEs) as purely selfish elements is being challenged as we have begun to appreciate the extent to which TEs contribute to allelic diversity, genome building, etc. Despite these long-term evolutionary contributions, there are few examples of TEs that make a direct, positive contribution to adaptive fitness. In E.coli cryptic (silent) catabolic operons can be activated by small TEs called insertion sequences (IS elements). Not only do IS elements make a direct contribution to fitness by activating cryptic operons, they do so in a regulated manner, transposing at a higher rate in starving cells than in growing cells. In at least one case, IS elements activate an operon during starvation only if the substrate for that operon is present in the environment. It appears that E. coli has managed to take advantage of ISelements for its own benefit.
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