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A Model-Based Analysis of GC-Biased Gene Conversion in the Human and Chimpanzee Genomes

PLoS Genetics
Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003684
  • Research Article
  • Biology
  • Computational Biology
  • Genomics
  • Comparative Genomics
  • Genome Complexity
  • Genome Evolution
  • Population Genetics
  • Natural Selection
  • Evolutionary Modeling
  • Sequence Analysis
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Evolutionary Genetics
  • Evolutionary Processes
  • Genomic Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Human Genetics
  • Biology
  • Medicine


GC-biased gene conversion (gBGC) is a recombination-associated process that favors the fixation of G/C alleles over A/T alleles. In mammals, gBGC is hypothesized to contribute to variation in GC content, rapidly evolving sequences, and the fixation of deleterious mutations, but its prevalence and general functional consequences remain poorly understood. gBGC is difficult to incorporate into models of molecular evolution and so far has primarily been studied using summary statistics from genomic comparisons. Here, we introduce a new probabilistic model that captures the joint effects of natural selection and gBGC on nucleotide substitution patterns, while allowing for correlations along the genome in these effects. We implemented our model in a computer program, called phastBias, that can accurately detect gBGC tracts about 1 kilobase or longer in simulated sequence alignments. When applied to real primate genome sequences, phastBias predicts gBGC tracts that cover roughly 0.3% of the human and chimpanzee genomes and account for 1.2% of human-chimpanzee nucleotide differences. These tracts fall in clusters, particularly in subtelomeric regions; they are enriched for recombination hotspots and fast-evolving sequences; and they display an ongoing fixation preference for G and C alleles. They are also significantly enriched for disease-associated polymorphisms, suggesting that they contribute to the fixation of deleterious alleles. The gBGC tracts provide a unique window into historical recombination processes along the human and chimpanzee lineages. They supply additional evidence of long-term conservation of megabase-scale recombination rates accompanied by rapid turnover of hotspots. Together, these findings shed new light on the evolutionary, functional, and disease implications of gBGC. The phastBias program and our predicted tracts are freely available.

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