Massive sequence variation in retroelement-encoded proteins
Diversity-generating retroelements (DGRs) are unique and unparalleled generators of massive protein sequence diversity. These elements are prevalent in the microbial ‘dark matter’, which appear to comprise a major fraction of microbial life, and are widespread in the human virome and microbiome. The only other example in the natural world of massive protein sequence variation occurs in the vertebrate adaptive immune system, in which variation enables the recognition of novel targets and consequent adaptation to dynamic environments. A similar benefit appears to be provided by DGRs. DGRs diversify proteins through a fundamentally different mechanism than the vertebrate immune system, and reaches a scope (up to 1030 possible sequences) greatly exceeding that of the vertebrate immune system. In DGRs, diversification arises from genetic information being transmitted unfaithfully for one specific base, adenine, and faithfully for the others. This occurs during reverse transcription of genetic information from RNA to cDNA, and the specificity to adenine shapes the pattern of protein functional variation. This selective infidelity to adenines is the central hallmark feature of DGRs. Selectivity infidelity is unique in biology and we are investigating how it occurs.