Open Access Research article

Home and away- the evolutionary dynamics of homing endonucleases

Adi Barzel12*, Uri Obolski3, Johann Peter Gogarten4, Martin Kupiec1 and Lilach Hadany3

Author affiliations

1 Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, 69978, Israel

2 Department of Pediatrics, Stanford University, California, 94305, USA

3 Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants, Faculty of Life Sciences. Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, 69978, Israel

4 Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, 91 North Eagleville Road, Storrs, CT 06269-3125 USA

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:324  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-324

Published: 4 November 2011



Homing endonucleases (HEases) are a large and diverse group of site-specific DNAases. They reside within self-splicing introns and inteins, and promote their horizontal dissemination. In recent years, HEases have been the focus of extensive research due to their promising potential use in gene targeting procedures for the treatment of genetic diseases and for the genetic engineering of crop, animal models and cell lines.


Using mathematical analysis and computational modeling, we present here a novel account for the evolution and population dynamics of HEase genes (HEGs). We describe HEGs as paradoxical selfish elements whose long-term persistence in a single population relies on low transmission rates and a positive correlation between transmission efficiency and toxicity.


Plausible conditions allow HEGs to sustain at high frequency through long evolutionary periods, with the endonuclease frequency being either at equilibrium or periodically oscillating. The predictions of our model may prove important not only for evolutionary theory but also for gene therapy and bio-engineering applications of HEases.