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Background: Non-autonomous VNTR (Variable Number of Tandem Repeats) composite retrotransposons - SVA (SINE-R-VNTR-Alu) and LAVA (L1-Alu-VNTR-Alu) - are specific to hominoid primates. SVA expanded in great apes, LAVA in gibbon. Both SVA and LAVA have been shown to be mobilized by the autonomous LINE-1 (L1)-encoded protein machinery in a cell-based assay in trans. The efficiency of human SVA retrotransposition in vitro has, however, been considerably lower than would be expected based on recent pedigree-based in vivo estimates. The VNTR composite elements across hominoids - gibbon LAVA, orangutan SVA_A descendants and hominine SVA_D descendants - display characteristic structures of the 5′ Alu-like domain and the VNTR. Different partner L1 subfamilies are currently active in each of the lineages. The possibility that the lineage-specific types of VNTR composites evolved in response to evolutionary changes in their autonomous partners, particularly in the nucleic acid binding L1 ORF1-encoded protein, has not been addressed. Results: Here I report the identification and functional characterization of a highly active human SVA element using an improved mneo retrotransposition reporter cassette. The modified cassette (mneoM) minimizes splicing between the VNTR of human SVAs and the neomycin phosphotransferase stop codon. SVA deletion analysis provides evidence that key elements determining its mobilization efficiency reside in the VNTR and 5′ hexameric repeats. Simultaneous removal of the 5′ hexameric repeats and part of the VNTR has an additive negative effect on mobilization rates. Taking advantage of the modified reporter cassette that facilitates robust cross-species comparison of SVA/LAVA retrotransposition, I show that the ORF1-encoded proteins of the L1 subfamilies currently active in gibbon, orangutan and human do not display substrate preference for gibbon LAVA versus orangutan SVA versus human SVA. Finally, I demonstrate that an orangutan-derived ORF1p supports only limited retrotransposition of SVA/LAVA in trans, despite being fully functional in L1 mobilization in cis. Conclusions: Overall, the analysis confirms SVA as a highly active human retrotransposon and preferred substrate of the L1-encoded protein machinery. Based on the results obtained in human cells coevolution of L1 ORF1p and VNTR composites does not appear very likely. The changes in orangutan L1 ORF1p that markedly reduce its mobilization capacity in trans might explain the different SVA insertion rates in the orangutan and hominine lineages, respectively.
Damert, A. (2020). LINE-1 ORF1p does not determine substrate preference for human/orangutan SVA and gibbon LAVA. Mobile DNA, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13100-020-00222-y