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Proc Biol Sci. 1999 Oct 22;266(1433):2053-9.

Eukaryotic non-coding DNA is functional: evidence from the differential scaling of cryptomonad genomes.

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  • 1Department of Botany, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Canada .


Genic DNA functions are commonplace: coding for proteins and specifying non-messenger RNA structure. Yet most DNA in the biosphere is non-genic, existing in nuclei as non-coding or secondary DNA. Why so much secondary DNA exists and why its amount per genome varies over orders of magnitude (correlating positively with cell volume) are central biological problems. A novel perspective on secondary DNA function comes from natural eukaryote eukaryote chimaeras (cryptomonads and chlorarachneans) where two phylogenetically distinct nuclei have coevolved within one cell for hundreds of millions of years. By comparing cryptomonad species differing 13-fold in cell volume, we show that nuclear and nucleomorph genome sizes obey fundamentally different scaling laws. Following a more than 125-fold reduction in DNA content, nucleomorph genomes exhibit little variation in size. Furthermore, the present lack of significant amounts of nucleomorph secondary DNA confirms that selection can readily eliminate functionless nuclear DNA, refuting 'selfish' and 'junk' theories of secondary DNA. Cryptomonad nuclear DNA content varied 12-fold: as in other eukaryotes, larger cells have extra DNA, which is almost certainly secondary DNA positively selected for a volume-related function. The skeletal DNA theory explains why nuclear genome size increases with cell volume and, using new evidence on nucleomorph gene functions, why nucleomorph genomes do not.

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