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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Sep;28(9):2561-75. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr079. Epub 2011 Mar 28.

GC-biased gene conversion impacts ribosomal DNA evolution in vertebrates, angiosperms, and other eukaryotes.

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Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution, Unité Mixte de Recherche 5554 Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université Montpellier II, Montpellier, France.


Ribosomal DNA (rDNA) is one of the most conserved genes in eukaryotes. The multiples copies of rDNA in the genome evolve in a concerted manner, through unequal crossing over and/or gene conversion, two mechanisms related to homologous recombination. Recombination increases local GC content in several organisms through a process known as GC-biased gene conversion (gBGC). gBGC has been well characterized in mammals, birds, and grasses, but its phylogenetic distribution across the tree of life is poorly understood. Here, we test the hypothesis that recombination affects the evolution of base composition in 18S rDNA and examine the reliability of this thoroughly studied molecule as a marker of gBGC in eukaryotes. Phylogenetic analyses of 18S rDNA in vertebrates and angiosperms reveal significant heterogeneity in the evolution of base composition across both groups. Mammals, birds, and grasses experience increases in the GC content of the 18S rDNA, consistent with previous genome-wide analyses. In addition, we observe increased GC contents in Ostariophysi ray-finned fishes and commelinid monocots (i.e., the clade including grasses), suggesting that the genomes of these two groups have been affected by gBGC. Polymorphism analyses in rDNA confirm that gBGC, not mutation bias, is the most plausible explanation for these patterns. We also find that helix and loop sites of the secondary structure of ribosomal RNA do not evolve at the same pace: loops evolve faster than helices, whereas helices are GC richer than loops. We extend analyses to major lineages of eukaryotes and suggest that gBGC might have also affected base composition in Giardia (Diplomonadina), nudibranch gastropods (Mollusca), and Asterozoa (Echinodermata).

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