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Down the Penrose stairs, or how selection for fewer recombination hotspots maintains their existence.

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In many species, meiotic recombination events tend to occur in narrow intervals of the genome, known as hotspots. In humans and mice, double strand break (DSB) hotspot locations are determined by the DNA-binding specificity of the zinc finger array of the PRDM9 protein, which is rapidly evolving at residues in contact with DNA. Previous models explained this rapid evolution in terms of the need to restore PRDM9 binding sites lost to gene conversion over time, under the assumption that more PRDM9 binding always leads to more DSBs. This assumption, however, does not align with current evidence. Recent experimental work indicates that PRDM9 binding on both homologs facilitates DSB repair, and that the absence of sufficient symmetric binding disrupts meiosis. We therefore consider an alternative hypothesis: that rapid PRDM9 evolution is driven by the need to restore symmetric binding because of its role in coupling DSB formation and efficient repair. To this end, we model the evolution of PRDM9 from first principles: from its binding dynamics to the population genetic processes that govern the evolution of the zinc finger array and its binding sites. We show that the loss of a small number of strong binding sites leads to the use of a greater number of weaker ones, resulting in a sharp reduction in symmetric binding and favoring new PRDM9 alleles that restore the use of a smaller set of strong binding sites. This decrease, in turn, drives rapid PRDM9 evolutionary turnover. Our results therefore suggest that the advantage of new PRDM9 alleles is in limiting the number of binding sites used effectively, rather than in increasing net PRDM9 binding. By extension, our model suggests that the evolutionary advantage of hotspots may have been to increase the efficiency of DSB repair and/or homolog pairing.


Peer reviewed: True

Acknowledgements: We thank Nicolas Lartillot, Laurent Duret, Scott Keeney, and members of the Przeworski and Sella labs for helpful discussions, as well as our reviewers, including Bernard de Massy and Sylvain Glemin, for their useful comments. This work was supported by NIH grant R01 GM83098 to MP and NIH R01 GM115889 to GS.


DSB repair, PRDM9, evolutionary biology, gene conversion, genetics, genomics, hotspot, human, meiosis, mouse, recombination, Humans, Mice, Animals, DNA Breaks, Double-Stranded, Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase, DNA Repair, Homologous Recombination, DNA, Meiosis

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eLife Sciences Publications, Ltd
National Institutes of Health (R01 GM83098)
National Institutes of Health (R01 GM115889)