Restless Genomes: Humans as a Model Organism for Understanding Host-Retrotransposable Element Dynamics
Since their initial discovery in maize, there have been various attempts to categorize the relationship between transposable elements (TEs) and their host organisms. These have ranged from TEs being selfish parasites to their role as essential, functional components of organismal biology. Research over the past several decades has, in many respects, only served to complicate the issue even further. On the one hand, investigators have amassed substantial evidence concerning the negative effects that TE-mutagenic activity can have on host genomes and organismal fitness. On the other hand, we find an increasing number of examples, across several taxa, of TEs being incorporated into functional biological roles for their host organism. Some 45% of our own genomes are comprised of TE copies. While many of these copies are dormant, having lost their ability to mobilize, several lineages continue to actively proliferate in modern human populations. With its complement of ancestral and active TEs, the human genome exhibits key aspects of the host–TE dynamic that has played out since early on in organismal evolution. In this review, we examine what insights the particularly well-characterized human system can provide regarding the nature of the host–TE interaction.