Helitrons are a family of mobile elements that were discovered in 2001 and are now known to exist in the entire eukaryotic kingdom. Helitrons, particularly those of maize, exhibit an intriguing property of capturing gene fragments and placing them into the mobile element. Helitron-captured genes are sometimes transcribed giving birth to chimeric transcripts that intertwine coding regions of different captured genes. Here, we perused the B73 maize genome for high-quality, putative Helitrons that exhibit +/- polymorphisms and contain pieces of more than one captured gene. Selected Helitrons were monitored for expression via in silico EST analysis. Intriguingly, expression validation of selected elements by RT-PCR analysis revealed multiple transcripts not seen in the EST databases. The differing transcripts were generated by alternative selection of splice sites during pre-mRNA processing. Selection of splice sites was not random since different patterns of splicing were observed in the root and shoot tissues. In one case, an exon residing in close proximity but outside of the Helitron was found conjoined with Helitron-derived exons in the mature transcript. Hence, Helitrons have the ability to synthesize new genes not only by placing unrelated exons into common transcripts, but also by transcription read through and capture of nearby exons. Thus, Helitrons have a phenomenal ability to "display" new coding regions for possible selection in nature. A highly conservative, minimum estimate of the number of new transcripts expressed by Helitrons is approximately 11,000 or approximately 25% of the total number of genes in the maize genome.
- Received October 28, 2011.
- Accepted December 4, 2011.
- Copyright © 2011, The Genetics Society of America