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Open Access Research article

A comparative computational analysis of nonautonomous Helitron elements between maize and rice

Michael Sweredoski12, Leah DeRose-Wilson13 and Brandon S Gaut13*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics, U.C. Irvine, Irvine CA 92697, USA

2 Dept. of Computer Science, U.C. Irvine, Irvine CA 92697, USA

3 Dept. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, U.C. Irvine, Irvine CA 92697, USA

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:467  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-467

Published: 8 October 2008



Helitrons are DNA transposable elements that are proposed to replicate via a rolling circle mechanism. Non-autonomous helitron elements have captured gene fragments from many genes in maize (Zea mays ssp. mays) but only a handful of genes in Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana). This observation suggests very different histories for helitrons in these two species, but it is unclear which species contains helitrons that are more typical of plants.


We performed computational searches to identify helitrons in maize and rice genomic sequence data. Using 12 previously identified helitrons as a seed set, we identified 23 helitrons in maize, five of which were polymorphic among a sample of inbred lines. Our total sample of maize helitrons contained fragments of 44 captured genes. Twenty-one of 35 of these helitrons did not cluster with other elements into closely related groups, suggesting substantial diversity in the maize element complement. We identified over 552 helitrons in the japonica rice genome. More than 70% of these were found in a collinear location in the indica rice genome, and 508 clustered as a single large subfamily. The japonica rice elements contained fragments of only 11 genes, a number similar to that in Arabidopsis. Given differences in gene capture between maize and rice, we examined sequence properties that could contribute to differences in capture rates, focusing on 3' palindromes that are hypothesized to play a role in transposition termination. The free energy of folding for maize helitrons were significantly lower than those in rice, but the direction of the difference differed from our prediction.


Maize helitrons are clearly unique relative to those of rice and Arabidopsis in the prevalence of gene capture, but the reasons for this difference remain elusive. Maize helitrons do not seem to be more polymorphic among individuals than those of Arabidopsis; they do not appear to be substantially older or younger than the helitrons in either species; and our analyses provided little evidence that the 3' hairpin plays a role.