A Model-Based Analysis of GC-Biased Gene Conversion in the Human and Chimpanzee Genomes
John A. Capra, Melissa J. Hubisz, Dennis Kostka, Katherine S. Pollard, Adam Siepel
(Submitted on 9 Mar 2013)
GC-biased gene conversion (gBGC) is a recombination-associated process that favors the fixation of G/C alleles over A/T alleles. In mammals, gBGC is hypothesized to contribute to variation in GC content, rapidly evolving sequences, and the fixation of deleterious mutations, but its prevalence and general functional consequences remain poorly understood. gBGC is difficult to incorporate into models of molecular evolution and so far has primarily been studied using summary statistics from genomic comparisons. Here, we introduce a new probabilistic model that captures the joint effects of natural selection and gBGC on nucleotide substitution patterns, while allowing for correlations along the genome in these effects. We implemented our model in a computer program, called phastBias, that can accurately detect gBGC tracts ~1 kilobase or longer in simulated sequence alignments. When applied to real primate genome sequences, phastBias predicts gBGC tracts that cover roughly 0.3% of the human and chimpanzee genomes and account for 1.2% of human-chimpanzee nucleotide differences. These tracts fall in clusters, particularly in subtelomeric regions; they are enriched for recombination hotspots and fast-evolving sequences; and they display an ongoing fixation preference for G and C alleles. We also find some evidence that they contribute to the fixation of deleterious alleles, including an enrichment for disease-associated polymorphisms. These tracts provide a unique window into historical recombination processes along the human and chimpanzee lineages; they supply additional evidence of long-term conservation of megabase-scale recombination rates accompanied by rapid turnover of hotspots. Together, these findings shed new light on the evolutionary, functional, and disease implications of gBGC. The phastBias program and our predicted tracts are freely available.