Bmc Genomics 8 (Oct 18 2007)
Artn 378 Doi 10.1186/1471-2164-8-378
Background: A substantial fraction of non-coding DNA sequences of multicellular eukaryotes is under selective constraint. In particular, similar to 5% of the human genome consists of conserved non-coding sequences (CNSs). CNSs differ from other genomic sequences in their nucleotide composition and must play important functional roles, which mostly remain obscure. Results: We investigated relative abundances of short sequence motifs in all human CNSs present in the human/ mouse whole-genome alignments vs. three background sets of sequences: (i) weakly conserved or unconserved non-coding sequences (non-CNSs); (ii) near-promoter sequences (located between nucleotides -500 and -1500, relative to a start of transcription); and (iii) random sequences with the same nucleotide composition as that of CNSs. When compared to non-CNSs and near-promoter sequences, CNSs possess an excess of AT-rich motifs, often containing runs of identical nucleotides. In contrast, when compared to random sequences, CNSs contain an excess of GC-rich motifs which, however, lack CpG dinucleotides. Thus, abundance of short sequence motifs in human CNSs, taken as a whole, is mostly determined by their overall compositional properties and not by overrepresentation of any specific short motifs. These properties are: (i) high AT-content of CNSs, (ii) a tendency, probably due to context-dependent mutation, of A’s and T’s to clump, (iii) presence of short GC-rich regions, and (iv) avoidance of CpG contexts, due to their hypermutability. Only a small number of short motifs, overrepresented in all human CNSs are similar to binding sites of transcription factors from the FOX family. Conclusion: Human CNSs as a whole appear to be too broad a class of sequences to possess strong footprints of any short sequence-specific functions. Such footprints should be studied at the level of functional subclasses of CNSs, such as those which flank genes with a particular pattern of expression. Overall properties of CNSs are affected by patterns in mutation, suggesting that selection which causes their conservation is not always very strong.