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Background: Mobile elements (MEs) are diverse, common and dynamic inhabitants of nearly all genomes. ME transposition generates a steady stream of polymorphic genetic markers, deleterious and adaptive mutations, and substrates for further genomic rearrangements. Research on the impacts, population dynamics, and evolution of MEs is constrained by the difficulty of ascertaining rare polymorphic ME insertions that occur against a large background of pre-existing fixed elements and then genotyping them in many individuals.Results: Here we present a novel method for identifying nearly all insertions of a ME subfamily in the whole genomes of multiple individuals and simultaneously genotyping (for presence or absence) those insertions that are variable in the population. We use ME-specific primers to construct DNA libraries that contain the junctions of all ME insertions of the subfamily, with their flanking genomic sequences, from many individuals. Individual-specific "index" sequences are designed into the oligonucleotide adapters used to construct the individual libraries. These libraries are then pooled and sequenced using a ME-specific sequencing primer. Mobile element insertion loci of the target subfamily are uniquely identified by their junction sequence, and all insertion junctions are linked to their individual libraries by the corresponding index sequence. To test this method's feasibility, we apply it to the human AluYb8 and AluYb9 subfamilies. In four individuals, we identified a total of 2,758 AluYb8 and AluYb9 insertions, including nearly all those that are present in the reference genome, as well as 487 that are not. Index counts show the sequenced products from each sample reflect the intended proportions to within 1%. At a sequencing depth of 355,000 paired reads per sample, the sensitivity and specificity of ME-Scan are both approximately 95%.Conclusions: Mobile Element Scanning (ME-Scan) is an efficient method for quickly genotyping mobile element insertions with very high sensitivity and specificity. In light of recent improvements to high-throughput sequencing technology, it should be possible to employ ME-Scan to genotype insertions of almost any mobile element family in many individuals from any species. © 2010 Witherspoon et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

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BMC Genomics