Evolutionary dynamics of microsatellite DNA

Chromosoma. 2000 Sep;109(6):365-71. doi: 10.1007/s004120000089.


Within the past decade microsatellites have developed into one of the most popular genetic markers. Despite the widespread use of microsatellite analysis, an integral picture of the mutational dynamics of microsatellite DNA is just beginning to emerge. Here, I review both generally agreed and controversial results about the mutational dynamics of microsatellite DNA. Microsatellites are short DNA sequence stretches in which a motif of one to six bases is tandemly repeated. It has been known for some time that these sequences can differ in repeat number among individuals. With the advent of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology this property of microsatellite DNA was converted into a highly versatile genetic marker (Litt and Luty 1989; Tautz 1989; Weber and May 1989). Polymerase chain reaction products of different length can be amplified with primers flanking the variable microsatellite region. Due to the availability of high-throughput capillary sequencers or mass spectrography the sizing of alleles is no longer a bottleneck in microsatellite analysis. The almost random distribution of microsatellites and their high level of polymorphism greatly facilitated the construction of genetic maps (Dietrich et al. 1994; Dib et al. 1996) and enabled subsequent positional cloning of several genes. Almost at the same time, microsatellites were established as the marker of choice for the identification of individuals and paternity testing. The high sensitivity of PCR-based microsatellite analysis was not only of great benefit for forensics, but opened completely new research areas, such as the analysis of samples with limited DNA amounts (e.g., many social insects) or degraded DNA (e.g., feces, museum material) (Schlötterer and Pemberton 1998). More recently, microsatellite analysis has also been employed in population genetics (Goldstein and Schlötterer 1999). Compared with allozymes, microsatellites offer the advantage that, in principle, several thousand potentially polymorphic markers are available. Nevertheless, the application of microsatellites to population genetic questions requires a more detailed understanding of the mutation processes of microsatellite DNA as the evolutionary time frames covered in population genetics are often too long to allow novel microsatellite mutations to be ignored. Additional interest in the evolution of microsatellite DNA comes from the discovery that trinucleotide repeats, a special class of microsatellites, are involved in human neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., fragile X and Huntington's disease). A detailed understanding of the processes underlying microsatellite instability is therefore an important contribution toward a better understanding of these human neurodegenerative diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • DNA Replication
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genetics, Population
  • Humans
  • Microsatellite Repeats*
  • Mutation
  • Recombination, Genetic