Our Conflict with Transposable Elements and Its Implications for Human Disease

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Our genome is a historic record of successive invasions of mobile genetic elements. Like other eukaryotes, we have evolved mechanisms to limit their propagation and minimize the functional impact of new insertions. Although these mechanisms are vitally important, they are imperfect, and a handful of retroelement families remain active in modern humans. This review introduces the intrinsic functions of transposons, the tactics employed in their restraint, and the relevance of this conflict to human pathology. The most straightforward examples of disease-causing transposable elements are germline insertions that disrupt a gene and result in a monogenic disease allele. More enigmatic are the abnormal patterns of transposable element expression in disease states. Changes in transposon regulation and cellular responses to their expression have implicated these sequences in diseases as diverse as cancer, autoimmunity, and neurodegeneration. Distinguishing their epiphenomenal from their pathogenic effects may provide wholly new perspectives on our understanding of disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-70
Number of pages20
JournalAnnual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease
StatePublished - Jan 24 2020


  • retrotransposon, endogenous retrovirus, LINE-1, Alu, SVA, interferon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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