Retrotransposons and retroviruses share similar intracellular life cycles and major encoded proteins, but retrotransposons lack the envelope (env) critical for infectivity. Retrotransposons are ubiquitous and abundant in plants and active retroviruses are known in animals. Although a few env-containing retroelements, gypsy-like Athila, Cyclops, and Calypso and copia-like SIRE-1, have been identified in plants, the general presence and functionality of the domain remains unclear. We show here that env-class elements are present throughout the flowering plants and are widely transcribed. Within the grasses, we show the transcription of the env domain itself for Bagy-2 and related retrotransposons, all members of the Athila group. Furthermore, Bagy-2 transcripts undergo splicing to generate a subgenomic env product as do those of retroviruses. Transcription and the polymorphism of their insertion sites in closely related barley cultivars suggests that at least some are propagationally active. The putative ENV polypeptides of Bagy-2 and rice Rigy-2 contain predicted leucine zipper and transmembrane domains typical of retroviral ENVs. These findings raise the prospect of active retroviral agents among the plants.
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