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PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e35271. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035271. Epub 2012 Apr 18.

Role of direct repeat and stem-loop motifs in mtDNA deletions: cause or coincidence?

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  • 1Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.


Deletion mutations within mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have been implicated in degenerative and aging related conditions, such as sarcopenia and neuro-degeneration. While the precise molecular mechanism of deletion formation in mtDNA is still not completely understood, genome motifs such as direct repeat (DR) and stem-loop (SL) have been observed in the neighborhood of deletion breakpoints and thus have been postulated to take part in mutagenesis. In this study, we have analyzed the mitochondrial genomes from four different mammals: human, rhesus monkey, mouse and rat, and compared them to randomly generated sequences to further elucidate the role of direct repeat and stem-loop motifs in aging associated mtDNA deletions. Our analysis revealed that in the four species, DR and SL structures are abundant and that their distributions in mtDNA are not statistically different from randomized sequences. However, the average distance between the reported age associated mtDNA breakpoints and their respective nearest DR motifs is significantly shorter than what is expected of random chance in human (p<10(-4)) and rhesus monkey (p = 0.0034), but not in mouse (p = 0.0719) and rat (p = 0.0437), indicating the existence of species specific difference in the relationship between DR motifs and deletion breakpoints. In addition, the frequencies of large DRs (>10 bp) tend to decrease with increasing lifespan among the four mammals studied here, further suggesting an evolutionary selection against stable mtDNA misalignments associated with long DRs in long-living animals. In contrast to the results on DR, the probability of finding SL motifs near a deletion breakpoint does not differ from random in any of the four mtDNA sequences considered. Taken together, the findings in this study give support for the importance of stable mtDNA misalignments, aided by long DRs, as a major mechanism of deletion formation in long-living, but not in short-living mammals.

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