The role of the Cer1 transposon in horizontal transfer of transgenerational memory.
Animals face both external and internal dangers: pathogens threaten from the environment, and unstable genomic elements threaten from within. C. elegans protects itself from pathogens by "reading" bacterial small RNAs, using this information to both induce avoidance and transmit memories for four generations. Here, we found that memories can be transferred from either lysed animals or from conditioned media to naive animals via Cer1 retrotransposon-encoded virus-like particles. Moreover, Cer1 functions internally at the step of transmission of information from the germline to neurons and is required for learned avoidance. The presence of the Cer1 retrotransposon in wild C. elegans strains correlates with the ability to learn and inherit small-RNA-induced pathogen avoidance. Together, these results suggest that C. elegans has co-opted a potentially dangerous retrotransposon to instead protect itself and its progeny from a common pathogen through its inter-tissue signaling ability, hijacking this genomic element for its own adaptive immunity benefit.