Repetitive Elements: Bioinformatic Identification, Classification and Analysis


Multicopy, or repetitive, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is routinely being detected and analysed by computer‐assisted comparison of genomic DNA with reference databases of repeats. The most representative collection of repetitive elements is ‘Repbase Update’ (RU), which currently contains >15 000 unique entries from diverse eukaryotic species. The majority of transposable elements (TEs) in RU are consensus sequences based on multiple alignments of individual repeats. Consensus sequences are approximations of active TEs responsible for generating multiple mutated copies in the genome. The current two major repeat detection and annotation programs, RepeatMasker and CENSOR, both use RU for annotation of repeats in eukaryotic genomes. RU is also increasingly being used as a master reference library to create custom libraries for detection of repeats in newly sequenced genomes. Finally, a combination of different routines can be used to detect repeats not similar to those already present in the reference libraries (de novo approach).

Key Concepts:

  • Active transposable elements (TEs) produce families and subfamilies of multiple copies in the genome, called ‘interspersed repetitive elements’ or ‘repeats’.

  • Consensus sequences derived from aligned families and subfamilies of repeats are excellent approximations of the active TEs from which they were derived.

  • Consensus sequences are also preferred reference sequences used in screening and annotation of repetitive elements, especially the most divergent ones.

  • RepeatMasker and CENSOR are basic repeat screening and annotation programs using reference sequence libraries.

  • In the absence of reference sequences, repetitive DNA can be detected by screening for multiple copies and characteristic structural features (de novo approach).

Keywords: transposable elements (TEs); simple sequence repeats (SSRs); repeat maps; computational biology; reference databases

Figure 1.

Basic prototypes of human repetitive DNA: (a) tandemly repeated DNA (minisatellites, microsatellites, centromeric and telomeric repeats); (b) LINE retro(trans)posons; (c) SINE retro(trans)posons; (d) and (e) autonomous and nonautonomous endogenous retroviral elements; (f) and (g) autonomous and nonautonomous DNA transposons. ORF1 and ORF2 denote open reading frames 1 and 2 in the human L1 (LINE1) element. ORF2 encodes an enzyme with endonuclease (EN) and reverse transcriptase (RT) activities. LTR, long terminal repeat and TIR, terminal inverted repeat.

Figure 2.

General scheme for computer‐assisted identification of repetitive DNA. Full and broken arrows indicate major and alternative steps in the process, respectively. The first step is identifying and masking simple sequence repeats (SSRs) using any variety of programs described in the text or by sequence alignment against a reference collection of simple repeats. This is followed by identification of complex repeats, by aligning the masked sequence against the respective reference collection. There are several types of possible output file: a list of alignments against the reference sequences, an input file with masked simple or complex repeats or both. Output files listing repeat location and other characteristics can be organised in a form of map similar to that in Table . S–W, Smith–Waterman algorithm.



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Further Reading

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Jurka J, Kapitonov VV, Kohany O and Jurka MV (2007) Repetitive sequences in complex genomes: structure and evolution. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 8: 241–259.

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Web Links

Genetic Information Research Institute ( Provides CENSOR server, which screens DNA sequences for simple and interspersed repeats using the current version of Repbase Update (Jurka, 2000; Jurka et al. 2005), which includes a content of the electronic journal Repbase Reports. It also provides a server for detailed classification of non‐LTR retrotransposons (

Repeat Masker Server at the University of Washington. RepeatMasker screens DNA sequences for interspersed repeats and low complexity DNA sequences using Repbase Update (Jurka, 2000) as well as custom libraries

REPET package.

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Jurka, Jerzy, Bao, Weidong, Kojima, Kenji, and Kapitonov, Vladimir V(Feb 2011) Repetitive Elements: Bioinformatic Identification, Classification and Analysis. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005270.pub2]