We recently proposed that patterns of evolution of non-LTR retrotransposable elements can be used to study patterns of spontaneous mutation. Transposition of non-LTR retrotransposable elements commonly results in creation of 5' truncated, "dead-on-arrival" copies. These inactive copies are effectively pseudogenes and, according to the neutral theory, their molecular evolution ought to reflect rates and patterns of spontaneous mutation. Maximum parsimony can be used to separate the evolution of active lineages of a non-LTR element from the fate of the "dead-on-arrival" insertions and to directly assess the relative frequencies of different types of spontaneous mutations. We applied this approach using a non-LTR element, Helena, in the Drosophila virilis group and have demonstrated a surprisingly high incidence of large deletions and the virtual absence of insertions. Based on these results, we suggested that Drosophila in general may exhibit a high rate of spontaneous large deletions and have hypothesized that such a high rate of DNA loss may help to explain the puzzling dearth of bona fide pseudogenes in Drosophila. We also speculated that variation in the rate of spontaneous deletion may contribute to the divergence of genome size in different taxa by affecting the amount of superfluous "junk" DNA such as, for example, pseudogenes or long introns. In this paper, we extend our analysis to the D. melanogaster subgroup, which last shared a common ancestor with the D. virilis group approximately 40 MYA. In a different region of the same transposable element, Helena, we demonstrate that inactive copies accumulate deletions in species of the D. melanogaster subgroup at a rate very similar to that of the D. virilis group. These results strongly suggest that the high rate of DNA loss is a general feature of Drosophila and not a peculiar property of a particular stretch of DNA in a particular species group.
Petrov, D AHartl, D LengGM33741/GM/NIGMS NIH HHS/HG01250/HG/NHGRI NIH HHS/Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.1998/03/21Mol Biol Evol. 1998 Mar;15(3):293-302.