by Jae Young Choi, Yuh Chwen G. Lee
Transposable elements (TEs) are genomic parasites that selfishly replicate at the expense of host fitness. Fifty years of evolutionary studies of TEs have concentrated on the deleterious genetic effects of TEs, such as their effects on disrupting genes and regulatory sequences. However, a flurry of recent work suggests that there is another important source of TEs’ harmful effects—epigenetic silencing. Host genomes typically silence TEs by the deposition of repressive epigenetic marks. While this silencing reduces the selfish replication of TEs and should benefit hosts, a picture is emerging that the epigenetic silencing of TEs triggers inadvertent spreading of repressive marks to otherwise expressed neighboring genes, ultimately jeopardizing host fitness. In this Review, we provide a long-overdue overview of the recent genome-wide evidence for the presence and prevalence of TEs’ epigenetic effects, highlighting both the similarities and differences across mammals, insects, and plants. We lay out the current understanding of the functional and fitness consequences of TEs’ epigenetic effects, and propose possible influences of such effects on the evolution of both hosts and TEs themselves. These unique evolutionary consequences indicate that TEs’ epigenetic effect is not only a crucial component of TE biology but could also be a significant contributor to genome function and evolution.