Intra-genomic variation in the ribosomal repeats of nematodes

PLoS One. 2013 Oct 11;8(10):e78230. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078230. eCollection 2013.


Ribosomal loci represent a major tool for investigating environmental diversity and community structure via high-throughput marker gene studies of eukaryotes (e.g. 18S rRNA). Since the estimation of species' abundance is a major goal of environmental studies (by counting numbers of sequences), understanding the patterns of rRNA copy number across species will be critical for informing such high-throughput approaches. Such knowledge is critical, given that ribosomal RNA genes exist within multi-copy repeated arrays in a genome. Here we measured the repeat copy number for six nematode species by mapping the sequences from whole genome shotgun libraries against reference sequences for their rRNA repeat. This revealed a 6-fold variation in repeat copy number amongst taxa investigated, with levels of intragenomic variation ranging from 56 to 323 copies of the rRNA array. By applying the same approach to four C. elegans mutation accumulation lines propagated by repeated bottlenecking for an average of ~400 generations, we find on average a 2-fold increase in repeat copy number (rate of increase in rRNA estimated at 0.0285-0.3414 copies per generation), suggesting that rRNA repeat copy number is subject to selection. Within each Caenorhabditis species, the majority of intragenomic variation found across the rRNA repeat was observed within gene regions (18S, 28S, 5.8S), suggesting that such intragenomic variation is not a product of selection for rRNA coding function. We find that the dramatic variation in repeat copy number among these six nematode genomes would limit the use of rRNA in estimates of organismal abundance. In addition, the unique pattern of variation within a single genome was uncorrelated with patterns of divergence between species, reflecting a strong signature of natural selection for rRNA function. A better understanding of the factors that control or affect copy number in these arrays, as well as their rates and patterns of evolution, will be critical for informing estimates of global biodiversity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / classification
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Nematoda / classification
  • Nematoda / genetics*
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA, Ribosomal / genetics*


  • RNA, Ribosomal