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Background: The human genome contains approximately one million Alu elements which comprise more than 10% of human DNA by mass. Alu elements possess direction, and are distributed almost equally in positive and negative strand orientations throughout the genome. Previously, it has been shown that closely spaced Alu pairs in opposing orientation (inverted pairs) are found less frequently than Alu pairs having the same orientation (direct pairs). However, this imbalance has only been investigated for Alu pairs separated by 650 or fewer base pairs (bp) in a study conducted prior to the completion of the draft human genome sequence. Results: We performed a comprehensive analysis of all (> 800,000) full-length Alu elements in the human genome. This large sample size permits detection of small differences in the ratio between inverted and direct Alu pairs (I:D). We have discovered a significant depression in the full-length Alu pair I:D ratio that extends to repeat pairs separated by 350,000 bp. Within this imbalance bubble (those Alu pairs separated by 350,000 bp), direct pairs outnumber inverted pairs. Using PCR, we experimentally verified several examples of inverted Alu pair exclusions that were caused by deletions. Conclusions: Over 50 million full-length Alu pairs reside within the I:D imbalance bubble. Their collective impact may represent one source of Alu element-related human genomic instability that has not been previously characterized. © 2011 Cook et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

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Mobile DNA