The Structure of Interrupted Human AC Microsatellites

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Microsatellite lengths change over evolutionary time through a process of replication slippage. A recently proposed model of this process holds that the expansionary tendencies of slippage mutation are balanced by point mutations breaking longer microsatellites into smaller units and that this process gives rise to the observed frequency distributions of uninterrupted microsatellite lengths. We refer to this as the slippage/point-mutation theory. Here we derive the theory's predictions for interrupted microsatellites comprising regions of perfect repeats, labeled segments, separated by dinucleotide interruptions containing point mutations. These predictions are tested by reference to the frequency distributions of segments of AC microsatellite in the human genome, and several predictions are shown not to be supported by the data, as follows. The estimated slippage rates are relatively low for the first four repeats, and then rise initially linearly with length, in accordance with previous work. However, contrary to expectation and the experimental evidence, the inferred slippage rates decline in segments above 10 repeats. Point mutation rates are also found to be higher within microsatellites than elsewhere. The theory provides an excellent fit to the frequency distribution of peripheral segment lengths but fails to explain why internal segments are shorter. Furthermore, there are fewer microsatellites with many segments than predicted. The frequencies of interrupted microsatellites decline geometrically with microsatellite size measured in number of segments, so that for each additional segment, the number of microsatellites is 33.6% less. Overall we conclude that the detailed structure of interrupted microsatellites cannot be reconciled with the existing slippage/point-mutation theory of microsatellite evolution, and we suggest that microsatellites are stabilized by processes acting on interior rather than on peripheral segments.

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