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Open Access Research article

Structural characterization of helitrons and their stepwise capturing of gene fragments in the maize genome

Yongbin Dong, Xiaomin Lu, Weibin Song, Lei Shi, Mei Zhang, Hainan Zhao, Yinping Jiao and Jinsheng Lai*

  • * Corresponding author: Jinsheng Lai jlai@cau.edu.cn

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology and National Maize Improvement Center, Department of Plant Genetics and Breeding, China Agricultural University, Beijing, 100193, China

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:609  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-609

Published: 17 December 2011

Abstract

Background

As a newly identified category of DNA transposon, helitrons have been found in a large number of eukaryotes genomes. Helitrons have contributed significantly to the intra-specific genome diversity in maize. Although many characteristics of helitrons in the maize genome have been well documented, the sequence of an intact autonomous helitrons has not been identified in maize. In addition, the process of gene fragment capturing during the transposition of helitrons has not been characterized.

Results

The whole genome sequences of maize inbred line B73 were analyzed, 1,649 helitron-like transposons including 1,515 helAs and 134 helBs were identified. ZmhelA1, ZmhelB1 and ZmhelB2 all encode an open reading frame (ORF) with intact replication initiator (Rep) motif and a DNA helicase (Hel) domain, which are similar to previously reported autonomous helitrons in other organisms. The putative autonomous ZmhelB1 and ZmhelB2 contain an extra replication factor-a protein1 (RPA1) transposase (RPA-TPase) including three single strand DNA-binding domains (DBD)-A/-B/-C in the ORF. Over ninety percent of maize helitrons identified have captured gene fragments. HelAs and helBs carry 4,645 and 249 gene fragments, which yield 2,507 and 187 different genes respectively. Many helitrons contain mutilple terminal sequences, but only one 3'-terminal sequence had an intact "CTAG" motif. There were no significant differences in the 5'-termini sequence between the veritas terminal sequence and the pseudo sequence. Helitrons not only can capture fragments, but were also shown to lose internal sequences during the course of transposing.

Conclusions

Three putative autonomous elements were identified, which encoded an intact Rep motif and a DNA helicase domain, suggesting that autonomous helitrons may exist in modern maize. The results indicate that gene fragments captured during the transposition of many helitrons happen in a stepwise way, with multiple gene fragments within one helitron resulting from several sequential transpositions. In addition, we have proposed a potential mechanism regarding how helitrons with multiple termini are generated.