Background: Although their role in cell division is essential, centromeres evolve rapidly in animals, plants and yeasts. Unlike the complex centromeres of plants and aminals, the point centromeres of Saccharomcyes yeasts can be readily sequenced to distinguish amongst the possible explanations for fast centromere evolution.
Results: Using DNA sequences of all 16 centromeres from 34 strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and population genomic data from Saccharomyces paradoxus, I show that centromeres in both species evolve 3 times more rapidly even than selectively unconstrained DNA. Exceptionally high levels of polymorphism seen in multiple yeast populations suggest that rapid centromere evolution does not result from the repeated selective sweeps expected under meiotic drive. I further show that there is little evidence for crossing-over or gene conversion within centromeres, although there is clear evidence for recombination in their immediate vicinity. Finally I show that the mutation spectrum at centromeres is consistent with the pattern of spontaneous mutation elsewhere in the genome.
Conclusions: These results indicate that rapid centromere evolution is a common phenomenon in yeast species. Furthermore, these results suggest that rapid centromere evolution does not result from the mutagenic effect of gene conversion, but from a generalised increase in the mutation rate, perhaps arising from the unusual chromatin structure at centromeres in yeast and other eukaryotes.