Background: CACTA elements are DNA transposons and are found in numerous organisms. Despite their low activity, several thousand copies can be identified in many genomes. CACTA elements transpose using a ‘cut-and-paste’ mechanism, which is facilitated by a DDE transposase. DDE transposases from CACTA elements contain, despite their conserved function, different exon numbers among various CACTA families. While earlier studies analyzed the ancestral history of the DDE transposases, no studies have examined exon loss and gain with a view of mechanisms that could drive the changes.
Results: We analyzed 64 transposases from different CACTA families among monocotyledonous and eudicotyledonous host species. The annotation of the exon/intron boundaries showed a range from one to six exons. A robust multiple sequence alignment of the 64 transposases based on their protein sequences was created and used for phylogenetic analysis, which revealed eight different clades. We observed that the exon numbers in CACTA transposases are not specific for a host genome. We found that ancient CACTA lineages diverged before the divergence of monocotyledons and eudicotyledons. Most exon/intron boundaries were found in three distinct regions among all the transposases, grouping 63 conserved intron/exon boundaries.
Conclusions: We propose a model for the ancestral CACTA transposase gene, which consists of four exons, that predates the divergence of the monocotyledons and eudicotyledons. Based on this model, we propose pathways of intron loss or gain to explain the observed variation in exon numbers. While intron loss appears to have prevailed, a putative case of intron gain was nevertheless observed.