Background: Macrosatellite repeats (MSRs), usually spanning hundreds of kilobases of genomic DNA, comprise a significant proportion of the human genome. Because of their highly polymorphic nature, MSRs represent an extreme example of copy number variation, but their structure and function is largely understudied. Here, we describe a detailed study of six autosomal and two X chromosomal MSRs among 270 HapMap individuals from Central Europe, Asia and Africa. Copy number variation, stability and genetic heterogeneity of the autosomal macrosatellite repeats RS447 (chromosome 4p), MSR5p (5p), FLJ40296 (13q), RNU2 (17q) and D4Z4 (4q and 10q) and X chromosomal DXZ4 and CT47 were investigated.
Results: Repeat array size distribution analysis shows that all of these MSRs are highly polymorphic with the most genetic variation among Africans and the least among Asians. A mitotic mutation rate of 0.4-2.2% was observed, exceeding meiotic mutation rates and possibly explaining the large size variability found for these MSRs. By means of a novel Bayesian approach, statistical support for a distinct multimodal rather than a uniform allele size distribution was detected in seven out of eight MSRs, with evidence for equidistant intervals between the modes.
Conclusions: The multimodal distributions with evidence for equidistant intervals, in combination with the observation of MSR-specific constraints on minimum array size, suggest that MSRs are limited in their configurations and that deviations thereof may cause disease, as is the case for facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. However, at present we cannot exclude that there are mechanistic constraints for MSRs that are not directly disease-related. This study represents the first comprehensive study of MSRs in different human populations by applying novel statistical methods and identifies commonalities and differences in their organization and function in the human genome.