Molecular domestication – more than a sporadic episode in evolution
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Transposable elements are short but complex pieces of DNA or RNA containing a streamlined minimal-genome with the capacity for its selfish replication in a foreign genomic environment. Cis-regulatory sections within the elements orchestrate tempo and mode of TE expression. Proteins encoded by TEs mainly direct their own propagation within the genome by recruitment of host-encoded factors. On the other hand, TE-encoded proteins harbor a very attractive repertoire of functional abilities for a cell. These proteins mediate excision, replication and integration of defined DNA fragments. Furthermore, some of these proteins are able to manipulate important host factors by altering their original function. Thus, if the host genome succeeds in domesticating such TE-encoded proteins by taming their ‘anarchistic behavior,’ such an event can be considered as an important evolutionary innovation for its own benefit. In fact, the domestication of TE-derived cis-regulatory modules and protein coding sections took place repeatedly in the course of genome evolution. We will present prominent cases that impressively demonstrate the beneficial impact of TEs on host biology over evolutionary time. Furthermore, we will propose that molecular domestication might be considered as a resumption of the same evolutionary process that drove the transition from ‘primitive genomes’ to ‘modern’ ones at the early dawn of life, that is, the adaptive integration of a short piece of autonomous DNA into a complex regulatory network.
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