I find Transposable Elements (TEs) to be some of the most fascinating features of genomes. Also known as selfish genetic elements, these sequences contain the genetic machinery to create copies of themselves and insert these new copies in locations throughout the genome. The genomes of different organisms vary widely in their degree TE abundance. For example, 20% of the human genome is composed of just one kind of TE!
This morning Robert Ruggiero, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of Stephane Boissinot at NYU Abu Dhabi, presented his work on the population genomics of TEs in the genomes of Anolis carolinensis populations. Robert employed a clever approach that uses a feature of next-generation sequence data to identify TE insertions. In this way, he can characterize all of the TE insertions in an individual’s genome and determine what portion of a population contains any particular insertion.
It’s easy to see how Transposable Elements could be bad for an organism. If a TE inserts itself into the middle of an important gene, the function of that gene could be interrupted, and render the bearer of that insertion less evolutionarily fit. The ability of natural selection to purge this type of deleterious insertion is governed in part by the effective population size of the group where that insertion arises. In essence, natural selection is more effective in larger populations.
Using the information he collected on TE insertions in anole populations, Ruggiero created a population genetic summary called an Allele Frequency Spectrum, the count of insertions that exist at a particular frequency in a population. This distribution can then be used to infer how well populations control the frequency of TE insertions, and in addition, estimate the effective size of those populations. Robert found TE insertions in Floridian populations of Anolis carolinensis were maintained at lower frequencies than other populations suggesting that selection is better able to purge deleterious insertions in the Florida population. He also found that different families of TEs appear to employ strategies that mirror ecological r/K theory. Some TEs create insertions frequently but few of these insertions get to high frequency, whereas other TEs insert infrequently, but those insertions that do occur are more likely to reach high frequency. Moving forward, using this line of inquiry in anoles will be an excellent opportunity to understand the control and evolutionary consequences of TEs, particularly as more Anolis genomes come online allowing comparative analyses.