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Naturally occurring strains of Candida albicans are opportunistic pathogens that lack a sexual cycle and that are usually diploids with eight pairs of chromosomes. C. albicans spontaneously gives rise to a high frequency of colonial morphology mutants with altered electrophoretic karyotypes, involving one or more of their chromosomes. However, the most frequent changes involve chromosome VIII, which contains the genes coding for ribosomal DNA (rDNA) units. We have used restriction fragment lengths to analyze the number and physical array of the rDNA units on chromosome VIII in four normal clinical strains and seven morphological mutants derived spontaneously from one of the clinical isolates. HindIII does not cleave the rDNA repeats and liberates the tandem rDNA cluster from each homolog of chromosome VIII as a single fragment, whereas the cleavage at a single site by NotI reveals the size of the single rDNA unit. All clinical strains and morphological mutants differed greatly in the number of rDNA units per cluster and per cell. The four clinical isolates differed additionally among themselves by the size of the single rDNA unit. For a total of 25 chromosome VIII homologs in a total of 11 strains considered, the variability of chromosome VIII was exclusively due to the length of rDNA clusters (or the number of rDNA units) in approximately 92% of the cases, whereas the others involved other rearrangements of chromosome VIII. Only slight variations in the number of rDNA units were observed among 10 random C. albicans subclones and 10 random Saccharomyces cerevisiae subclones grown for a prolonged time at 22 degrees C. However, when grown faster at optimal temperatures of 37 and 30 degrees C, respectively, both fungi accumulated higher numbers of rDNA units, suggesting that this condition is selected for in rapidly growing cells. The morphological mutants, in comparison with the C. albicans subclones, contained a markedly wider distribution of the number of rDNA units, suggesting that a distinct process may be involved in altering the number of rDNA units in these mutants.