We investigated the evolution of the families of LINE-1 (L1) retrotransposons that have amplified in the human lineage since the origin of primates. We identified two phases in the evolution of L1. From ∼70 million years ago (Mya) until ∼40 Mya, three distinct L1 lineages were simultaneously active in the genome of ancestral primates. In contrast, during the last 40 million years (Myr), i.e., during the evolution of anthropoid primates, a single lineage of families has evolved and amplified. We found that novel (i.e., unrelated) regulatory regions (5′UTR) have been frequently recruited during the evolution of L1, whereas the two open-reading frames (ORF1 and ORF2) have remained relatively conserved. We found that L1 families coexisted and formed independently evolving L1 lineages only when they had different 5′UTRs. We propose that L1 families with different 5′UTR can coexist because they don't rely on the same host-encoded factors for their transcription and therefore do not compete with each other. The most prolific L1 families (families L1PA8 to L1PA3) amplified between 40 and 12 Mya. This period of high activity corresponds to an episode of adaptive evolution in a segment of ORF1. The correlation between the high activity of L1 families and adaptive evolution could result from the coevolution of L1 and a host-encoded repressor of L1 activity.
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