Plant genome organisation and diversity: the year of the junk!
Having gained a thorough understanding of the structure and organization of model plant genomes, such as those of Arabidopsis thaliana and rice, we have now started to investigate the most interesting aspect of genome structure — its variations. Variation in DNA sequence is responsible for the genetic component of phenotypic variation (i.e. the component upon which both natural and artificial selection act). Recent studies have started to shed light on sequence variation outside of the genic regions, owing mainly to large insertion/deletion (indel) polymorphisms caused by the presence or absence of transposable elements of different classes. In addition to long terminal repeat retrotransposons, DNA transposons have been shown to be responsible for these polymorphisms. These comprise Helitrons, CACTA and Mu-like elements that are capable of acquiring and piecing together fragments of plant genes and are often expressed. Future analyses of the functional roles of intergenic sequence variation will tell us if we will need to pay more attention not only to genes, but also to the ‘junk’ DNA surrounding them.