- The mechanism by which the maize autonomous Ac transposable element gives rise to nonautonomous Ds elements is largely unknown. Sequence analysis of native maize Ds elements indicates a complex chimeric structure formed through deletions of Ac sequences with or without insertions of Ac-unrelated sequence blocks. These blocks are often flanked by short stretches of reshuffled and duplicated Ac sequences. To better understand the mechanism leading to Ds formation, we designed an assay for detecting alterations in Ac using transgenic tobacco plants carrying a single copy of Ac. We found frequent de novo alterations in Ac which were excision rather than sequence dependent, occurring within Ac but not within an almost identical Ds element and not within a stable transposase-producing gene. The de novo DNA rearrangements consisted of internal deletions with breakpoints usually occurring at short repeats and, in some cases, of duplication of Ac sequences or insertion of Ac-unrelated fragments. The ancient maize Ds elements and the young Ds elements in transgenic tobacco showed similar rearrangements, suggesting that Ac-Ds elements evolve rapidly, more so than stable genes, through deletions, duplications, and reshuffling of their own sequences and through capturing of unrelated sequences. The data presented here suggest that abortive Ac-induced gap repair, through the synthesis-dependent strand-annealing pathway, is the underlying mechanism for Ds element formation.