DNA Transposons vs. Retrotransposons

What's the Difference?

DNA transposons and retrotransposons are two types of transposable elements found in the genomes of organisms. DNA transposons move within the genome by a "cut and paste" mechanism, where they are excised from one location and inserted into another. Retrotransposons, on the other hand, use a "copy and paste" mechanism, where they are first transcribed into RNA and then reverse transcribed back into DNA before being inserted into a new genomic location. While both types of transposons can cause genetic mutations and rearrangements, retrotransposons are more abundant in genomes and have played a significant role in shaping the evolution of genomes by contributing to the creation of new genes and regulatory elements.


AttributeDNA TransposonsRetrotransposons
StructureShort, direct repeats at both endsLong terminal repeats (LTRs)
Transposition MechanismExcision and reintegrationReverse transcription and integration
TransposaseEncoded by the transposon itselfNot encoded by the retrotransposon
RNA IntermediateNot involvedUses an RNA intermediate
Copy NumberLow copy numberHigh copy number
Target SiteCan integrate into any DNA sequenceIntegrates near LTRs or other retrotransposons
Host Genome ImpactCan cause mutations or disrupt genesCan cause mutations or alter gene expression

Further Detail


DNA transposons and retrotransposons are two major classes of transposable elements found in the genomes of various organisms. These elements have the ability to move or transpose within the genome, leading to genetic rearrangements and contributing to genome evolution. While both types of transposons share the common feature of mobility, they differ in their mechanisms of transposition, structure, and evolutionary history.

Mechanism of Transposition

DNA transposons, also known as "cut-and-paste" transposons, move within the genome through a direct excision and reintegration mechanism. They encode a transposase enzyme that recognizes specific DNA sequences at their ends, catalyzing the excision of the transposon from the donor site and its subsequent integration into a new target site. This process involves the formation of a DNA intermediate during transposition.

Retrotransposons, on the other hand, employ a "copy-and-paste" mechanism known as retrotransposition. They are first transcribed into RNA by the host cell's machinery. The RNA is then reverse transcribed into DNA by a reverse transcriptase enzyme encoded by the retrotransposon itself. The resulting DNA copy is then integrated into a new genomic location. Retrotransposons can be further classified into two subtypes: long terminal repeat (LTR) retrotransposons and non-LTR retrotransposons.


DNA transposons are typically characterized by their terminal inverted repeats (TIRs), which are short DNA sequences found at both ends of the transposon. These TIRs are recognized by the transposase enzyme, facilitating the excision and integration process. The transposon itself can vary in size, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand base pairs.

Retrotransposons, on the other hand, possess distinct structural features. LTR retrotransposons contain long terminal repeats at their ends, which are identical or highly similar DNA sequences. These LTRs play a role in the integration process and also serve as promoters for transcription. Non-LTR retrotransposons lack LTRs but contain other conserved regions, such as a primer binding site and a polypurine tract, which are essential for reverse transcription and integration.

Evolutionary History

DNA transposons are considered ancient elements that have been present in genomes for millions of years. They are found in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, suggesting an early origin. The transposase enzyme, responsible for their mobility, shows similarities across different organisms, indicating a common ancestry.

Retrotransposons, on the other hand, are believed to have evolved from retroviruses, which are RNA viruses that replicate via reverse transcription. Retroviruses have the ability to integrate their DNA copies into the host genome, and it is hypothesized that retrotransposons originated from the integration of retroviral sequences into germ cells. Over time, these integrated sequences lost their ability to form infectious viral particles but retained the ability to transpose within the genome.

Abundance and Impact

DNA transposons are generally less abundant in genomes compared to retrotransposons. They are often present in low copy numbers and can be found in both coding and non-coding regions of the genome. Some DNA transposons have been domesticated by the host organism and now play important roles in gene regulation and genome organization.

Retrotransposons, on the other hand, can be highly abundant, constituting a significant portion of many eukaryotic genomes. For example, retrotransposons make up approximately 40% of the human genome. Their high copy numbers and ability to insert into coding regions can have significant impacts on genome structure and function. Retrotransposon insertions can disrupt genes, alter gene expression, and contribute to genetic diseases.

Regulation and Control

The activity of transposable elements, including both DNA transposons and retrotransposons, is tightly regulated by the host organism. Various mechanisms have evolved to control their transposition and prevent excessive genomic instability. DNA methylation, histone modifications, and small RNA-mediated silencing pathways are among the mechanisms employed by the host to suppress transposon activity.

However, retrotransposons have evolved additional mechanisms to regulate their own transposition. LTR retrotransposons, for instance, often contain internal sequences that act as insulators, preventing the spread of heterochromatin and maintaining an open chromatin environment for their own transcription and transposition.


DNA transposons and retrotransposons are fascinating elements that have shaped the genomes of organisms throughout evolution. While both types of transposons share the ability to move within the genome, they differ in their mechanisms of transposition, structure, evolutionary history, abundance, and impact on genome function. Understanding the attributes of these transposable elements is crucial for unraveling the complexities of genome evolution and the role of transposons in shaping genetic diversity.

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