Background: The individual copies of tandemly repeated genes, such as ribosomal DNA (rDNA), evolve coordinately within a species. This phenomenon has been called concerted evolution, and is thought to be caused by sequence-homogenizing mechanisms, such as gene conversion or unequal crossing-over between individual copies of the gene family. As these processes would act between the arrays on homologous and non-homologous chromosomes, the whole family of repeats would be expected to undergo homogenization in a given interbreeding population.
Results: In order to study the homogenization process, we have examined polymorphisms within the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) of the rDNA in populations of Drosophila melanogaster at the sequence level, by DNA sequencing and temperature-gradient gel electrophoresis. Among 84 ITS clones sequenced from five different wild-type strains, we found three polymorphic sites that are apparently in the process of homogenization. However, these three sites, as well as combinations of them, occurred at different frequencies in the different strains. Moreover, temperature-gradient gel electrophoresis analysis of an ITS fragment including these three sites shows that single chromosomes from locally interbreeding populations can harbor rDNA arrays that are largely homogenized for different sequence variants.
Conclusions: The presence of chromosomal arrays that are homogeneous for different variants in interbreeding populations of Drosophila melanogaster indicates that there is little recombination between the chromosomes while new mutations are being homogenized along the individual arrays. The most likely explanation for this finding is that intrachromosomal recombination events occur at much higher rates than recombination between homologous chromosomes. Thus, the first step of the homogenization process would occur mainly within chromosomal lines. Such behavior of tandem repeat arrays suggests a simple explanation of how selection can act on a multigene family, namely by acting on whole chromosomally confined repeat arrays rather than on individual repeat units.