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Abstract

Persistence of a mobile DNA element in a population reflects a balance between the ability of the host to eliminate the element and the ability of the element to survive and to disseminate to other individuals. In each of the three biological kingdoms, several families of a mobile DNA element have been identified which encode a single protein that acts on nucleic acids. Collectively termed homing endonuclease genes (HEGs), these elements employ varied strategies to ensure their survival. Some members of the HEG families have a minimal impact on host fitness because they associate with genes having self-splicing introns or inteins that remove the HEGs at the RNA or protein level. The HEG and the intron/intein gene spread throughout the population by a gene conversion process initiated by the HEG-encoded endonuclease called ‘homing’ in which the HEG and intron/intein genes are copied to cognate alleles that lack them. The endonuclease activity also contributes to a high frequency of lateral transmission of HEGs between species as has been documented in plants and other systems. Other HEGs have positive selection value because the proteins have evolved activities that benefit their host organisms. The success of HEGs in colonizing diverse genetic niches results from the flexibility of the encoded endonucleases in adopting new specificities.