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Open Access Highly Accessed Commentary

Inteins, introns, and homing endonucleases: recent revelations about the life cycle of parasitic genetic elements

J Peter Gogarten1* and Elena Hilario2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 06269-31258, USA

2 HortResearch, 120 Mt. Albert Road, Private Bag 92 169, Mt. Albert, Auckland, New Zealand

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2006, 6:94  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-6-94

Published: 13 November 2006

Abstract

Self splicing introns and inteins that rely on a homing endonuclease for propagation are parasitic genetic elements. Their life-cycle and evolutionary fate has been described through the homing cycle. According to this model the homing endonuclease is selected for function only during the spreading phase of the parasite. This phase ends when the parasitic element is fixed in the population. Upon fixation the homing endonuclease is no longer under selection, and its activity is lost through random processes. Recent analyses of these parasitic elements with functional homing endonucleases suggest that this model in its most simple form is not always applicable. Apparently, functioning homing endonuclease can persist over long evolutionary times in populations and species that are thought to be asexual or nearly asexual. Here we review these recent findings and discuss their implications. Reasons for the long-term persistence of a functional homing endonuclease include: More recombination (sexual and as a result of gene transfer) than previously assumed for these organisms; complex population structures that prevent the element from being fixed; a balance between active spreading of the homing endonuclease and a decrease in fitness caused by the parasite in the host organism; or a function of the homing endonuclease that increases the fitness of the host organism and results in purifying selection for the homing endonuclease activity, even after fixation in a local population. In the future, more detailed studies of the population dynamics of the activity and regulation of homing endonucleases are needed to decide between these possibilities, and to determine their relative contributions to the long term survival of parasitic genes within a population. Two outstanding publications on the amoeba Naegleria group I intron (Wikmark et al. BMC Evol Biol 2006, 6:39) and the PRP8 inteins in ascomycetes (Butler et al.BMC Evol Biol 2006, 6:42) provide important stepping stones towards integrated studies on how these parasitic elements evolve through time together with, or despite, their hosts.