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Background: Alu elements are short (∼300 bp) interspersed elements that amplify in primate genomes through a process termed retroposition. The expansion of these elements has had a significant impact on the structure and function of primate genomes. Approximately 10 % of the mass of the human genome is comprised of Alu elements, making them the most abundant short interspersed element (SINE) in our genome. The majority of Alu amplification occurred early in primate evolution, and the current rate of Alu retroposition is at least 100 fold slower than the peak of amplification that occurred 30-50 million years ago. Alu elements are therefore a rich source of inter- and intra-species primate genomic variation. Results: A total of 153 Alu elements from the Ye subfamily were extracted from the draft sequence of the human genome. Analysis of these elements resulted in the discovery of two new Alu subfamilies, Ye4 and Ye6, complementing the previously described Ye5 subfamily. DNA sequence analysis of each of the Alu Ye subfamilies yielded average age estimates of ∼14, ∼13 and ∼9.5 million years old for the Alu Ye4, Ye5 and Ye6 subfamilies, respectively. In addition, 120 Alu Ye4, Ye5 and Ye6 loci were screened using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays to determine their phylogenetic origin and levels of human genomic diversity. Conclusion: The Alu Ye lineage appears to have started amplifying relatively early in primate evolution and continued propagating at a low level as many of its members are found in a variety of hominoid (humans, greater and lesser ape) genomes. Detailed sequence analysis of several Alu pre-integration sites indicated that multiple types of events had occurred, including gene conversions, near-parallel independent insertions of different Alu elements and Alu-mediated genomic deletions. A potential hotspot for Alu insertion in the Fer1L3 gene on chromosome 10 was also identified. © 2005 Salem et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

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BMC Evolutionary Biology