Accumulation of transposable elements in hox gene clusters during adaptive radiation of anolis lizards

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Transposable elements (TEs) are DNA sequences that can insert elsewhere in the genome and modify genome structure and gene regulation. The role of TEs in evolution is contentious. One hypothesis posits that TE activity generates genomic incompatibilities that can cause reproductive isolation between incipient species. This predicts that TEs will accumulate during speciation events. Here, I tested the prediction that extant lineages with a relatively high rate of speciation have a high number of TEs in their genomes. I sequenced and analysed the TE content of a marker genomic region (Hox clusters) in Anolis lizards, a classic case of an adaptive radiation. Unlike other vertebrates, including closely related lizards, Anolis lizards have high numbers of TEs in their Hox clusters, genomic regions that regulate development of the morphological adaptations that characterize habitat specialists in these lizards. Following a burst of TE activity in the lineage leading to extant Anolis, TEs have continued to accumulate during or after speciation events, resulting in a positive relationship between TE density and lineage speciation rate. These results are consistent with the prediction that TE activity contributes to adaptive radiation by promoting speciation. Although there was no evidence that TE density per se is associated with ecological morphology, the activity of TEs in Hox clusters could have been a rich source for phenotypic variation that may have facilitated the rapid parallel morphological adaptation to microhabitats seen in extant Anolis lizards.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20161555
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1840
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Oct 12

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Evolutionary Biology


  • Adaptive radiation
  • Anolis lizards
  • Hox gene cluster
  • Speciation
  • Transposable elements


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