Background: LTR retrotransposons contribute approximately 10 % of the mammalian genome, but it has been previously reported that there is a deficit of these elements in the chicken relative to both mammals and other birds. A novel LTR retrotransposon classification pipeline, LocaTR, was developed and subsequently utilised to re-examine the chicken LTR retrotransposon annotation, and determine if the proposed chicken deficit is biologically accurate or simply a technical artefact. Results: Using LocaTR 3.01 % of the chicken galGal4 genome assembly was annotated as LTR retrotransposon-derived elements (nearly double the previous annotation), including 1,073 that were structurally intact. Element distribution is significantly correlated with chromosome size and is non-random within each chromosome. Elements are significantly depleted within coding regions and enriched in gene sparse areas of the genome. Over 40 % of intact elements are found in clusters, unrelated by age or genera, generally in poorly recombining regions. The transcription of most LTR retrotransposons were suppressed or incomplete, but individual domain and full length retroviral transcripts were produced in some cases, although mostly with regularly interspersed stop codons in all reading frames. Furthermore, RNAseq data from 23 diverse tissues enabled greater characterisation of the co-opted endogenous retrovirus Ovex1. This gene was shown to be expressed ubiquitously but at variable levels across different tissues. LTR retrotransposon content was found to be very variable across the avian lineage and did not correlate with either genome size or phylogenetic position. However, the extent of previous, species-specific LTR retrotransposon annotation appears to be a confounding factor. Conclusions: Use of the novel LocaTR pipeline has nearly doubled the annotated LTR retrotransposon content of the chicken genome compared to previous estimates. Further analysis has described element distribution, clustering patterns and degree of expression in a variety of adult tissues, as well as in three embryonic stages. This study also enabled better characterisation of the co-opted gamma retroviral envelope gene Ovex1. Additionally, this work suggests that there is no deficit of LTR retrotransposons within the Galliformes relative to other birds, or to mammalian genomes when scaled for the three-fold difference in genome size.
Mason, A. S., Fulton, J. E., Hocking, P. M., & Burt, D. W. (2016). A new look at the LTR retrotransposon content of the chicken genome. BMC Genomics, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12864-016-3043-1