Homing endonuclease genes: the rise and fall and rise again of a selfish element

Burt, AK, V.,  Current Opinion in Genetics & Development,  14:609-615. 2004.

Homing endonuclease genes (HEGs) are selfish genetic elements that spread by first cleaving chromosomes that do not contain them and then getting copied across to the broken chromosome as a byproduct of the repair process. The success of this strategy will depend on the opportunities for homing – in other words, the frequency with which HEG(+) and HEG(-) chromosomes come into contact – which varies widely among host taxa. HEGs are also unusual in that the selection pressure for endonuclease function disappears if they become fixed in a population, which makes them susceptible to degeneration and imposes a need for regular horizontal transmission between species. HEGs will be selected to reduce the harm done to the host organism, and this is expected to influence the evolution of their sequence specificity and maturase functions. HEGs may also be domesticated by their hosts, and are currently being put to human uses.