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Transposable elements drive the evolution of metazoan zinc finger genes

Wells JN, Chang NC, McCormick J, Coleman C, Ramos N, Jin B, Feschotte C
Genome Res. 2023 Sep 15. doi: 10.1101/gr.277966.123. Online ahead of print
Cys2-His2 zinc finger genes (ZNFs) form the largest family of transcription factors in metazoans. ZNF evolution is highly dynamic and characterized by the rapid expansion and contraction of numerous subfamilies across the animal phylogeny. The forces and mechanisms underlying rapid ZNF evolution remain poorly understood, but there is growing evidence that, in tetrapods, the targeting and repression of lineage-specific transposable elements (TEs) plays a critical role in the evolution of the Kr├╝ppel-associated box ZNF (KZNF) subfamily. Currently, it is unknown whether this function and coevolutionary relationship is unique to KZNFs or is a broader feature of metazoan ZNFs. Here, we present evidence that genomic conflict with TEs has been a central driver of the diversification of ZNFs in animals. Sampling from 3221 genome assemblies, we show that the copy number of retroelements correlates with that of ZNFs across at least 750 million years of metazoan evolution. Using computational predictions, we show that ZNFs preferentially bind TEs in diverse animal species. We further investigate the largest ZNF subfamily found in cyprinid fish, which is characterized by a conserved sequence we dubbed the fish N-terminal zinc finger-associated (FiNZ) domain. Zebrafish possess approximately 700 FiNZ-ZNFs, many of which are evolving adaptively under positive selection. Like mammalian KZNFs, most zebrafish FiNZ-ZNFs are expressed at the onset of zygotic genome activation, and blocking their translation using morpholinos during early embryogenesis results in derepression of transcriptionally active TEs. Together, these data suggest that ZNF diversification has been intimately connected to TE expansion throughout animal evolution.
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