The genomes of virtually all organisms contain repetitive sequences that are generated by the activity of transposable elements (transposons). Transposons are mobile genetic elements that can move from one genomic location to another; in this process, they amplify and increase their presence in genomes, sometimes to very high copy numbers. In this Review we discuss new evidence and ideas that the activity of retrotransposons, a major subgroup of transposons overall, influences and even promotes the process of ageing and age-related diseases in complex metazoan organisms, including humans. Retrotransposons have been coevolving with their host genomes since the dawn of life. This relationship has been largely competitive, and transposons have earned epithets such as ‘junk DNA’ and ‘molecular parasites’. Much of our knowledge of the evolution of retrotransposons reflects their activity in the germline and is evident from genome sequence data. Recent research has provided a wealth of information on the activity of retrotransposons in somatic tissues during an individual lifespan, the molecular mechanisms that underlie this activity, and the manner in which these processes intersect with our own physiology, health and well-being.
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