Computational Prediction and Molecular Confirmation of Helitron Transposons in the Maize Genome

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Background: Helitrons represent a new class of transposable elements recently uncovered in plants and animals. One remarkable feature of Helitrons is their ability to capture gene sequences, which makes them of considerable potential evolutionary importance. However, because Helitrons lack the typical structural features of other DNA transposable elements, identifying them is a challenge. Currently, most researchers identify Helitrons manually by comparing sequences. With the maize whole genome sequencing project underway, an automated computational Helitron searching tool is needed. The characterization of Helitron activities in maize needs to be addressed in order to better understand the impact of Helitrons on the organization of the genome. Results: We developed and implemented a heuristic searching algorithm in PERL for identifying Helitrons. Our HelitronFinder program will (i) take FASTA-formatted DNA sequences as input and identify the hairpin looping patterns, and (ii) exploit the consensus 5′ and 3′ end sequences of known Helitrons to identify putative ends. We randomly selected five predicted Helitrons from the program's high quality output for molecular verification. Four out of the five predicted Helitrons were confirmed by PCR assays and DNA sequencing in different maize inbred lines. The HelitronFinder program identified two head-to-head dissimilar Helitrons in a maize BAC sequence. Conclusion: We have identified 140 new Helitron candidates in maize with our computational tool HelitronFinder by searching maize DNA sequences currently available in GenBank. Four out of five candidates were confirmed to be real by empirical methods, thus validating the predictions of HelitronFinder. Additional points to emerge from our study are that Helitrons do not always insert at an AT dinucleotide in the host sequences, that they can insert immediately adjacent to an existing Helitron, and that their movement may cause changes in the flanking region, such as deletions.



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