Background: Recent advances in comparative genomics have considerably improved our knowledge of the evolution of mammalian karyotype architecture. One of the breakthroughs was the preferential localization of evolutionary breakpoints in regions enriched in repetitive sequences (segmental duplications, telomeres and centromeres). In this context, we investigated the contribution of ribosomal genes to genome reshuffling since they are generally located in pericentromeric or subtelomeric regions, and form repeat clusters on different chromosomes. The target model was the genus Mus which exhibits a high rate of karyotypic change, a large fraction of which involves centromeres.
Results: The chromosomal distribution of rDNA clusters was determined by in situ hybridization of mouse probes in 19 species. Using a molecular-based reference tree, the phylogenetic distribution of clusters within the genus was reconstructed, and the temporal association between rDNA clusters, breakpoints and centromeres was tested by maximum likelihood analyses. Our results highlighted the following features of rDNA cluster dynamics in the genus Mus: i) rDNA clusters showed extensive diversity in number between species and an almost exclusive pericentromeric location, ii) a strong association between rDNA sites and centromeres was retrieved which may be related to their shared constraint of concerted evolution, iii) 24% of the observed breakpoints mapped near an rDNA cluster, and iv) a substantial rate of rDNA cluster change (insertion, deletion) also occurred in the absence of chromosomal rearrangements.
Conclusions: This study on the dynamics of rDNA clusters within the genus Mus has revealed a strong evolutionary relationship between rDNA clusters and centromeres. Both of these genomic structures coincide with breakpoints in the genus Mus, suggesting that the accumulation of a large number of repeats in the centromeric region may contribute to the high level of chromosome repatterning observed in this group. However, the elevated rate of rDNA change observed in the chromosomally invariant clade indicates that the presence of these sequences is insufficient to lead to genome instability. In agreement with recent studies, these results suggest that additional factors such as modifications of the epigenetic state of DNA may be required to trigger evolutionary plasticity.