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Most animals employ telomerase, which consists of a catalytic subunit known as the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) and an RNA template, to maintain telomere ends. Given the importance of TERT and telomere biology in core metazoan life history traits, like ageing and the control of somatic cell proliferation, we hypothesised that TERT would have patterns of sequence and regulatory evolution reflecting the diverse life histories across the Animal Kingdom.We performed a complete investigation of the evolutionary history of TERT across animals. We show that although TERT is almost ubiquitous across Metazoa, it has undergone substantial sequence evolution within canonical motifs. Beyond the known canonical motifs, we also identify and compare regions that are highly variable between lineages, but show conservation within phyla. Recent data have highlighted the importance of alternative splice forms of TERT in non-canonical functions and although animals may share some conserved introns, we find that the selection of exons for alternative splicing appears to be highly variable, and regulation by alternative splicing appears to be a very dynamic feature of TERT evolution. We show that even within a closely related group of triclad flatworms, where alternative splicing of TERT was previously correlated with reproductive strategy, we observe highly diverse splicing patterns.Our work establishes that the evolutionary history and structural evolution of TERT involves previously unappreciated levels of change and the emergence of lineage specific motifs. The sequence conservation we describe within phyla suggests that these new motifs likely serve essential biological functions of TERT, which along with changes in splicing, underpin diverse functions of TERT important for animal life histories.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC evolutionary biology

Publication Date





107 - 107


Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PS, UK.


Telomere, Animals, Telomerase, Protein Subunits, Evolution, Molecular, Phylogeny, Alternative Splicing, Catalytic Domain, Conserved Sequence, Introns, Exons