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Exploratory analysis of transposable elements expression in the C. elegans early embryo

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Abstract

Background: Transposable Elements (TE) are mobile sequences that make up large portions of eukaryote genomes. The functions they play within the complex cellular architecture are still not clearly understood, but it is becoming evident that TE have a role in several physiological and pathological processes. In particular, it has been shown that TE transcription is necessary for the correct development of mice embryos and that their expression is able to finely modulate transcription of coding and non-coding genes. Moreover, their activity in the central nervous system (CNS) and other tissues has been correlated with the creation of somatic mosaicisms and with pathologies such as neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases as well as cancers. Results: We analyzed TE expression among different cell types of the Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) early embryo asking if, where and when TE are expressed and whether their expression is correlated with genes playing a role in early embryo development. To answer these questions, we took advantage of a public C. elegans embryonic single-cell RNA-seq (sc-RNAseq) dataset and developed a bioinformatics pipeline able to quantify reads mapping specifically against TE, avoiding counting reads mapping on TE fragments embedded in coding/non-coding transcripts. Our results suggest that i) canonical TE expression analysis tools, which do not discard reads mapping on TE fragments embedded in annotated transcripts, may over-estimate TE expression levels, ii) Long Terminal Repeats (LTR) elements are mostly expressed in undifferentiated cells and might play a role in pluripotency maintenance and activation of the innate immune response, iii) non-LTR are expressed in differentiated cells, in particular in neurons and nervous system-Associated tissues, and iv) DNA TE are homogenously expressed throughout the C. elegans early embryo development. Conclusions: TE expression appears finely modulated in the C. elegans early embryo and different TE classes are expressed in different cell types and stages, suggesting that TE might play diverse functions during early embryo development.

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Ansaloni, F., Scarpato, M., Di Schiavi, E., Gustincich, S., & Sanges, R. (2019). Exploratory analysis of transposable elements expression in the C. elegans early embryo. BMC Bioinformatics, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12859-019-3088-7

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