Retrotransposons are highly abundant mobile genetic elements that can copy and insert themselves randomly (more or less) across the genome. Because it’s very unlikely that a transposon would insert itself into the same exact position independently in multiple lineages, TE insertions have long been considered to be “homoplasy-free” markers that can be reliably used to identify monophyletic groups.
But is this really true?
A new study in Systematic Biology looks at millions of primate TE insertions and finds that, technically speaking, transpososons are not completely free of homoplasy. However, the incidence of homoplasy is so low that TEs are still highly reliable markers.
I don’t have access to the full paper at the moment, but here’s the abstract:
How reliable are the presence/absence insertion patterns of the supposedly homoplasy-free retrotransposons, which were randomly inserted in the quasi infinite genomic space? To systematically examine this question in an up-to-date, multigenome comparison, we screened millions of primate transposed Alu SINE elements for incidences of homoplasious precise insertions and deletions. In genome-wide analyses, we identified and manually verified nine cases of precise parallel Alu insertions of apparently identical elements at orthologous positions in two ape lineages and twelve incidences of precise deletions of previously established SINEs. Correspondingly, eight precise parallel insertions and no exact deletions were detected in a comparison of lemuriform primate and human insertions spanning the range of primate diversity. With an overall frequency of homoplasious Alu insertions of only 0.01% (for human–chimpanzee–rhesus macaque) and 0.02–0.04% (for human–bushbaby–lemurs) and precise Alu deletions of 0.001–0.002% (for human–chimpanzee–rhesus macaque), real homoplasy is not considered to be a quantitatively relevant source of evolutionary noise. Thus, presence/absence patterns of Alu retrotransposons and, presumably, all LINE1-mobilized elements represent indeed the virtually homoplasy-free markers they are considered to be. Therefore, ancestral incomplete lineage sorting and hybridization remain the only serious sources of conflicting presence/absence patterns of retrotransposon insertions, and as such are detectable and quantifiable.
This means that retrotransposon insertions can be used to independently validate existing phylogenetic hypotheses. That’s not exactly news, but it’s good to have this kind of large-scale confirmation.