Comparative genetics of functional trinucleotide tandem repeats in humans and apes.
Several human neurodegenerative disorders are caused by the expansion of polymorphic trinucleotide repeat regions. Many of these loci are functional short tandem repeats (STRs) located in brain-expressed genes, and their study is thus relevant from both a medical and an evolutionary point of view. The aims of our study are to infer the comparative pattern of variation and evolution of this set of loci in order to show species-specific features in this group of STRs and on their potential for expansion (therefore, an insight into evolutionary medicine) and to unravel whether any human-specific feature may be identified in brain-expressed genes involved in human disease. We analyzed the variability of the normal range of seven expanding STR CAG/CTG loci (SCA1, SCA2, SCA3-MJD, SCA6, SCA8, SCA12, and DRPLA) and two nonexpanding polymorphic CAG loci (KCNN3 and NCOA3) in humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. The study showed a general conservation of the repetitive tract and of the polymorphism in the four species and high heterogeneity among loci distributions. Humans present slightly larger alleles than the rest of species but a more relevant difference appears in variability levels: Humans are the species with the largest variance, although only for the expanding loci, suggesting a relationship between variability levels and expansion potential. The sequence analysis shows high levels of sequence conservation among species, a lack of correspondence between interruption patterns and variability levels, and signs of conservative selective pressure for some of the STR loci. Only two loci (SCA1 and SCA8) show a human specific distribution, with larger alleles than the rest of species. This could account, at the same time, for a human-specific trait and a predisposition to disease through expansion.