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Diversity and structure of PIF/Harbinger-like elements in the genome of Medicago truncatula

Dariusz Grzebelus1*, Slawomir Lasota2, Tomasz Gambin3, Gregory Kucherov4 and Anna Gambin2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Genetics, Plant Breeding and Seed Science, Agricultural University of Krakow, Al. 29 Listopada 54, 31-425 Krakow, Poland

2 Institute of Informatics, Warsaw University, Banacha 2, 02-097, Poland

3 Institute of Computer Science, Warsaw University of Technology, Nowowiejska 15/19, 00-665 Warsaw, Poland

4 LIFL/CNRS/INRIA, Bat. M3 59655 Villeneuve d'Ascq, Lille, France

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BMC Genomics 2007, 8:409  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-8-409

Published: 9 November 2007



Transposable elements constitute a significant fraction of plant genomes. The PIF/Harbinger superfamily includes DNA transposons (class II elements) carrying terminal inverted repeats and producing a 3 bp target site duplication upon insertion. The presence of an ORF coding for the DDE/DDD transposase, required for transposition, is characteristic for the autonomous PIF/Harbinger-like elements. Based on the above features, PIF/Harbinger-like elements were identified in several plant genomes and divided into several evolutionary lineages. Availability of a significant portion of Medicago truncatula genomic sequence allowed for mining PIF/Harbinger-like elements, starting from a single previously described element MtMaster.


Twenty two putative autonomous, i.e. carrying an ORF coding for TPase and complete terminal inverted repeats, and 67 non-autonomous PIF/Harbinger-like elements were found in the genome of M. truncatula. They were divided into five families, MtPH-A5, MtPH-A6, MtPH-D,MtPH-E, and MtPH-M, corresponding to three previously identified and two new lineages. The largest families, MtPH-A6 and MtPH-M were further divided into four and three subfamilies, respectively. Non-autonomous elements were usually direct deletion derivatives of the putative autonomous element, however other types of rearrangements, including inversions and nested insertions were also observed. An interesting structural characteristic – the presence of 60 bp tandem repeats – was observed in a group of elements of subfamily MtPH-A6-4. Some families could be related to miniature inverted repeat elements (MITEs). The presence of empty loci (RESites), paralogous to those flanking the identified transposable elements, both autonomous and non-autonomous, as well as the presence of transposon insertion related size polymorphisms, confirmed that some of the mined elements were capable for transposition.


The population of PIF/Harbinger-like elements in the genome of M. truncatula is diverse. A detailed intra-family comparison of the elements' structure proved that they proliferated in the genome generally following the model of abortive gap repair. However, the presence of tandem repeats facilitated more pronounced rearrangements of the element internal regions. The insertion polymorphism of the MtPH elements and related MITE families in different populations of M. truncatula, if further confirmed experimentally, could be used as a source of molecular markers complementary to other marker systems.