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Am J Hum Genet. 2007 Apr;80(4):692-704. Epub 2007 Feb 20.

The strength of selection on ultraconserved elements in the human genome.

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  • 1Department of Genetics, Center for Genome Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine, 4444 Forest Park Parkway, St. Louis, MO 63108, USA.


Ultraconserved elements are stretches of consecutive nucleotides that are perfectly conserved in multiple mammalian genomes. Although these sequences are identical in the reference human, mouse, and rat genomes, we identified numerous polymorphisms within these regions in the human population. To determine whether polymorphisms in ultraconserved elements affect fitness, we genotyped unrelated human DNA samples at loci within these sequences. For all single-nucleotide polymorphisms tested in ultraconserved regions, individuals homozygous for derived alleles (alleles that differ from the rodent reference genomes) were present, viable, and healthy. The distribution of allele frequencies in these samples argues against strong, ongoing selection as the force maintaining the conservation of these sequences. We then used two methods to determine the minimum level of selection required to generate these sequences. Despite the lack of fixed differences in these sequences between humans and rodents, the average level of selection on ultraconserved elements is less than that on essential genes. The strength of selection associated with ultraconserved elements suggests that mutations in these regions may have subtle phenotypic consequences that are not easily detected in the laboratory.

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