R1 and R2 are non-long-terminal repeat retrotransposable elements that insert into specific sequences of insect 28S ribosomal RNA genes. These elements have been extensively described in Drosophila melanogaster. To determine whether these elements have been horizontally or vertically transmitted, we characterized R1 and R2 elements from the seven other members of the melanogaster species subgroup by genomic blotting and nucleotide sequencing. Each species was found to have homogeneous families of R1 and R2 elements with the exception of erecta and orena, which have no R2 elements. The DNA sequences of multiple R1 and R2 copies from each species indicated nucleotide divergence within each species averaged only 0.48% for R1 and 0.35% for R2, well below the level of divergence among the species. Most copies of R1 and R2 (40 of 47) sequenced from the seven species were potentially functional, as indicated by the absence of premature termination codons or translational frameshifts that would destroy the open reading frame of the element. The sequence relationships of both the R1 and R2 elements from the various members of the melanogaster subgroup closely followed that of the species phylogeny, suggesting that R1 and R2 have been stably maintained by vertical transmission since the origin of this species subgroup 17-20 million years ago. The remarkable stability of R1 and R2, compared to what has been suggested for transposable elements that insert at multiple locations in these same species, may be due to their unique specificity for sites in the rRNA gene locus. Under low copy number conditions, when it is essential for any mobile element to transpose, the insertion specificities of R1 and R2 ensure uniform developmentally regulated target sites that can be occupied with little or no detrimental effect on the host.
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