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In primate genomes more than 40% of CpG islands are found within repetitive elements. With more than one million copies in the human genome, the Alu family of retrotransposons represents the most successful short interspersed element (SINE) in primates and CpG dinucleotides make up about 20% of Alu sequences. It is generally thought that CpG dinucleotides mutate approximately ten times faster than other dinucleotides due to cytosine methylation and the subsequent deamination and conversion of C→T. However, the disparity of Alu subfamily age estimations based upon CpG or non-CpG substitution density indicates a more complex relationship between CpG and non-CpG substitutions within the Alu elements. Here we report an analysis of the mutation patterns for 5296 Alu elements comprising 20 subfamilies. Our results indicate a relatively constant CpG versus non-CpG substitution ratio of ∼6 for the young (AluY) and intermediate (AluS) Alu subfamilies. However, a more complex non-linear relationship between CpG and non-CpG substitutions was observed when old (AluJ) subfamilies were included in the analysis. These patterns may be the result of the slowdown of the neutral mutation rate during primate evolution and/or an increase in the CpG mutation rate as the consequence of increased DNA methylation in response to a burst of retrotransposition activity ∼35 million years ago. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Journal of Molecular Biology

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