LINE-1 (L1) elements are the most abundant autonomous retrotransposons in the human genome, accounting for about 17% of human DNA. The L1 retrotransposon encodes two proteins, open reading frame (ORF)1 and the ORF2 endonuclease/reverse transcriptase. L1 RNA and ORF2 protein are difficult to detect in mammalian cells, even in the context of overexpression systems. Here we show that inserting L1 sequences on a transcript significantly decreases RNA expression and therefore protein expression. This decreased RNA concentration does not result from major effects on the transcription initiation rate or RNA stability. Rather, the poor L1 expression is primarily due to inadequate transcriptional elongation. Because L1 is an abundant and broadly distributed mobile element, the inhibition of transcriptional elongation by L1 might profoundly affect expression of endogenous human genes. We propose a model in which L1 affects gene expression genome-wide by acting as a 'molecular rheostat' of target genes. Bioinformatic data are consistent with the hypothesis that L1 can serve as an evolutionary fine-tuner of the human transcriptome.
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