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Open Access Research article

Proliferation of Ty3/gypsy-like retrotransposons in hybrid sunflower taxa inferred from phylogenetic data

Mark C Ungerer1*, Suzanne C Strakosh1 and Kaitlin M Stimpson2

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, USA

2 Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:40  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-40

Published: 14 July 2009



Long terminal repeat (LTR) retrotransposons are a class of mobile genetic element capable of autonomous transposition via an RNA intermediate. Their large size and proliferative ability make them important contributors to genome size evolution, especially in plants, where they can reach exceptionally high copy numbers and contribute substantially to variation in genome size even among closely related taxa. Using a phylogenetic approach, we characterize dynamics of proliferation events of Ty3/gypsy-like LTR retrotransposons that led to massive genomic expansion in three Helianthus (sunflower) species of ancient hybrid origin. The three hybrid species are independently derived from the same two parental species, offering a unique opportunity to explore patterns of retrotransposon proliferation in light of reticulate evolutionary events in this species group.


We demonstrate that Ty3/gypsy-like retrotransposons exist as multiple well supported sublineages in both the parental and hybrid derivative species and that the same element sublineage served as the source lineage of proliferation in each hybrid species' genome. This inference is based on patterns of species-specific element numerical abundance within different phylogenetic sublineages as well as through signals of proliferation events present in the distributions of element divergence values. Employing methods to date paralogous sequences within a genome, proliferation events in the hybrid species' genomes are estimated to have occurred approximately 0.5 to 1 million years ago.


Proliferation of the same retrotransposon major sublineage in each hybrid species indicates that similar dynamics of element derepression and amplification likely occurred in each hybrid taxon during their formation. Temporal estimates of these proliferation events suggest an earlier origin for these hybrid species than previously supposed.