Over the past 60 million years, or so, approximately one million copies of Alu DNA repeats have accumulated in the genome of primates, in what appears to be an ongoing process. We determined the phylogenetic distribution of specific Alu (and other) DNA repeats in the genome of several primates: human, chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, baboon, rhesus, and macaque. At the population level studied, the majority of the repeats was found to be fixed in the primate species. Our data suggest that new Alu elements arise in unique, irreversible events, in a mechanism that seems to preclude precise excision and loss. The same insertions did not arise independently in two species. Once inserted and genetically fixed, the DNA elements are retained in all descendant lineages. The irreversible expansion of Alu s introduces a vector of time into the evolutionary process, and provides realistic (rather than statistical) answers to questions on phylogenies. In contrast to point mutations, the present distribution of individual Alu s is congruent with just one phylogeny. We submit that only irreversible and taxonomically relevant events are at the molecular basis of evolution. Most point mutations do not belong to this category.
Copyright 1999 Academic Press.