Processed pseudogenes are nonfunctional copies of genes that arise from reverse transcription and integration of mRNA transcripts back into the genome. Unlike typical gene duplications, processed pseudogenes lack introns and often include polyadenylation signals and other mRNA-derived features. It’s worth understanding how these pseudogenes arise, what their characteristics are, and their significance in the genome.

Mechanism of Processed Pseudogene Formation

The formation of a processed pseudogene involves several steps:

  1. Transcription and Splicing: The process begins with the transcription of a gene into pre-mRNA, which contains both exons and introns. The pre-mRNA undergoes splicing, where introns are removed and exons are joined to form a mature mRNA.
  2. Polyadenylation: During processing, a poly-A tail is added to the 3′ end of the mRNA. This tail is a hallmark of mature mRNA and plays a role in mRNA stability and export from the nucleus.
  3. Reverse Transcription: Mature mRNA is then reverse transcribed into complementary DNA (cDNA) by the enzyme reverse transcriptase. This enzyme is typically encoded by retrotransposons or endogenous retroviruses present in the genome.
  4. Integration: The resulting cDNA is integrated into the genome at a new location. This integration is usually facilitated by integrase or transposase enzymes, also encoded by retroelements. The integration site can be random, and the process often involves the insertion of short target site duplications flanking the inserted cDNA.

Characteristics of Processed Pseudogenes

Processed pseudogenes have distinct features that differentiate them from other gene duplications:

  1. Lack of Introns: Processed pseudogenes arise from mRNA, so they lack the introns present in their parent genes. This intronless nature is a key indicator of their origin.
  2. Presence of Poly-A Tail: The polyadenylation signal from the original mRNA is often present at the 3′ end of the processed pseudogene, though it may be truncated or mutated over time.
  3. Nonfunctional: Processed pseudogenes generally accumulate mutations that render them nonfunctional. They lack regulatory elements such as promoters, leading to their inability to be transcribed efficiently.
  4. Sequence Similarity: They show high sequence similarity to the parent gene’s exons but diverge over time due to the accumulation of mutations.
  5. Random Genomic Location: Processed pseudogenes can be inserted anywhere in the genome, independent of the original gene’s location.

Formation Example: The Alu Element

Alu elements are a prime example of how reverse transcription can create processed pseudogenes. Alu elements are short, interspersed elements that make up a significant portion of the human genome. They are derived from 7SL RNA, a component of the signal recognition particle, and are capable of being reverse transcribed and integrated into new genomic locations.

Evolutionary Impact and Significance

Processed pseudogenes play several roles in genome evolution and function:

  1. Genomic Fossils: They serve as molecular fossils, providing a historical record of gene expression and retrotransposition events. By studying processed pseudogenes, scientists can infer the evolutionary history of genes and the activity of retrotransposons.
  2. Gene Evolution: Occasionally, a processed pseudogene can acquire regulatory elements and become functional. This rare event can lead to the birth of new genes, contributing to genetic novelty and complexity.
  3. Genomic Stability and Variation: The insertion of processed pseudogenes can cause genomic instability by disrupting functional genes or regulatory regions. They contribute to genetic variation and can be used as markers in population genetics studies.
  4. Noncoding Functions: Some processed pseudogenes may play regulatory roles. For example, they can act as decoys for miRNAs, thereby regulating the expression of other genes. This regulatory potential adds an additional layer of complexity to gene regulation.

Case Study: Processed Pseudogenes in Human Evolution

In humans, numerous processed pseudogenes have been identified and studied:

  1. GAPDH Pseudogenes: The GAPDH gene, encoding a key enzyme in glycolysis, has multiple processed pseudogenes dispersed throughout the human genome. These pseudogenes retain the exonic sequences but lack introns and regulatory regions, characteristic of their processed nature.
  2. Functionalization Example: An example of a processed pseudogene that became functional is the phosphoglycerate kinase gene (PGK2) in mammals. PGK2 originated from a processed pseudogene and acquired new regulatory elements, enabling it to be specifically expressed in the testis and play a role in sperm development.

Identification and Analysis

Identifying processed pseudogenes involves several techniques:

  1. Sequence Analysis: Comparing genomic sequences to cDNA or mRNA sequences can reveal the absence of introns and the presence of poly-A tails, indicative of processed pseudogenes.
  2. Phylogenetic Analysis: By constructing phylogenetic trees, researchers can determine the evolutionary relationships between processed pseudogenes and their parent genes, helping to trace their origins and evolutionary pathways.
  3. Genomic Databases: Bioinformatics tools and databases, such as Ensembl and UCSC Genome Browser, provide resources for identifying and annotating processed pseudogenes in various genomes.


Processed pseudogenes arise through the reverse transcription of mRNA and subsequent integration into the genome. They are characterized by the absence of introns, presence of poly-A tails, and their nonfunctional status. While they are generally considered genomic “junk,” processed pseudogenes serve important roles in understanding gene evolution, genomic variation, and regulatory mechanisms. Their study provides insights into the dynamic nature of genomes and the intricate processes that drive genetic diversity and evolution.

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