Retroelement-derived RNA and its role in the brain

Taylor A. Evans, Jennifer Ann Erwin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Comprising ~40% of the human genome, retroelements are mobile genetic elements which are transcribed into RNA, then reverse-transcribed into DNA and inserted into a new site in the genome. Retroelements are referred to as “genetic parasites”, residing among host genes and relying on host machinery for transcription and evolutionary propagation. The healthy brain has the highest expression of retroelement-derived sequences compared to other somatic tissue, which leads to the question: how does retroelement-derived RNA influence human traits and cellular states? While the functional importance of upregulating retroelement expression in the brain is an active area of research, RNA species derived from retroelements influence both self- and host gene expression by contributing to chromatin remodeling, alternative splicing, somatic mosaicism and translational repression. Here, we review the emerging evidence that the functional importance of RNA derived from retroelements is multifaceted. Retroelements can influence organismal states through the seeding of epigenetic states in chromatin, the production of structured RNA and even catalytically active ribozymes, the generation of cytoplasmic ssDNA and RNA/DNA hybrids, the production of viral-like proteins, and the generation of somatic mutations. Comparative sequencing suggests that retroelements can contribute to intraspecies variation through these mechanisms to alter transcript identity and abundance. In humans, an increasing number of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative conditions are associated with dysregulated retroelements, including Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome (AGS), Rett syndrome (RTT), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer's disease (AD), multiple sclerosis (MS), schizophrenia (SZ), and aging. Taken together, these concepts suggest a larger functional role for RNA derived from retroelements. This review aims to define retroelement-derived RNA, discuss how it impacts the mammalian genome, as well as summarize data supporting phenotypic consequences of this unique RNA subset in the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-80
Number of pages13
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • HERV
  • LINE-1
  • Mobile DNA
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Neurodevelopment
  • RNA biology
  • Retrotransposons
  • Rett syndrome
  • SVA
  • Somatic Mosaicism
  • Transcriptomics
  • Transposable element
  • X-Linked Dystonia Parkinsonism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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