Volume 88 (2013) Issue 1 Pages 19-29
Short interspersed elements (SINEs) are a class of retrotransposons, which amplify their copy numbers in their host genomes by retrotransposition. More than a million copies of SINEs are present in a mammalian genome, constituting over 10% of the total genomic sequence. In contrast to the other two classes of retrotransposons, long interspersed elements (LINEs) and long terminal repeat (LTR) elements, SINEs are transcribed by RNA polymerase III. However, like LINEs and LTR elements, the SINE transcription is likely regulated by epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation, at least for human Alu and mouse B1. Whereas SINEs and other transposable elements have long been thought as selfish or junk DNA, recent studies have revealed that they play functional roles at their genomic locations, for example, as distal enhancers, chromatin boundaries and binding sites of many transcription factors. These activities imply that SINE retrotransposition has shaped the regulatory network and chromatin landscape of their hosts. Whereas it is thought that the epigenetic mechanisms were originated as a host defense system against proliferation of parasitic elements, this review discusses a possibility that the same mechanisms are also used to regulate the SINE-derived functions.