Runaway GC evolution in gerbil genomes.
Pracana R., Hargreaves AD., Mulley JF., Holland PWH.
Recombination increases the local GC-content in genomic regions through GC-biased gene conversion (gBGC). The recent discovery of a large genomic region with extreme GC-content in the fat sand rat Psammomys obesus provides a model to study the effects of gBGC on chromosome evolution. Here, we compare the GC-content and GC-to-AT substitution patterns across protein-coding genes of four gerbil species and two murine rodents (mouse and rat). We find that the known high-GC region is present in all the gerbils, and is characterised by high substitution rates for all mutational categories (AT-to-GC, GC-to-AT and GC-conservative) both at synonymous and nonsynonymous sites. A higher AT-to-GC than GC-to-AT rate is consistent with the high GC-content. Additionally, we find more than 300 genes outside the known region with outlying values of AT-to-GC synonymous substitution rates in gerbils. Of these, over 30% are organised into at least 17 large clusters observable at the megabase-scale. The unusual GC-skewed substitution pattern suggests the evolution of genomic regions with very high recombination rates in the gerbil lineage, which can lead to a runaway increase in GC-content. Our results imply that rapid evolution of GC-content is possible in mammals, with gerbil species providing a powerful model to study the mechanisms of gBGC.