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Nat Genet. 2000 Apr;24(4):396-9.

The direction of microsatellite mutations is dependent upon allele length.

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Program for Population Genetics, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA.


Microsatellites, comprising tandemly repeated short nucleotide sequences, are ubiquitous in eukaryotic genomes. Mutations within microsatellites are frequent, altering their overall length by insertion or deletion of a small number of repeat units, with a rate as high as 10(-3) in humans. Despite their high mutability, stable allele frequency distributions are typically observed for microsatellites in humans as well as other primates, although the mechanism maintaining these stable distributions remains unclear. Previous studies have suggested that microsatellite mutations occur more frequently in longer alleles and favour expansion. Generalizing these results has been hindered because the sample sizes were small, only a small subset of alleles for any marker was studied and the direction of mutation (expansion or contraction) was not rigorously determined. Here we examine 236 mutations at 122 tetranucleotide repeat markers and find that the rate of contraction mutations increases exponentially with allele size, whereas the rate of expansion mutations is constant across the entire allele distribution. The overall rate of expansion mutations does not differ from that of contractions. Our findings offer an explanation for the stationary allele distribution of microsatellites.

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