Although the past decade has seen tremendous progress in our understanding of fine-scale recombination, little is known about non-crossover (NCO) gene conversion. We report the first genome-wide study of NCO events in humans. Using SNP array data from 98 meioses, we identified 103 sites affected by NCO, of which 50/52 were confirmed in sequence data. Overlap with double strand break (DSB) hotspots indicates that most of the events are likely of meiotic origin. We estimate that a site is involved in a NCO at a rate of 5.9 × 10−6/bp/generation, consistent with sperm-typing studies, and infer that tract lengths span at least an order of magnitude. Observed NCO events show strong allelic bias at heterozygous AT/GC SNPs, with 68% (58–78%) transmitting GC alleles (p = 5 × 10−4). Strikingly, in 4 of 15 regions with resequencing data, multiple disjoint NCO tracts cluster in close proximity (∼20–30 kb), a phenomenon not previously seen in mammals.
The genetic information inside our cells is stored in the form of chromosomes, which are carefully packaged strands of DNA. Most human cells contain a pair of each chromosome: one inherited from the mother and another from the father. Typically, when a human cell divides, it duplicates all of its chromosomes and then places one copy of each into the two new cells.
However, a different process—known as ‘meiosis’—occurs when a human cell divides to make the cells involved in sexual reproduction (i.e., egg cells in females and sperm cells in males). First, the cell duplicates all of its chromosomes as before, but then it pairs the chromosomes originally from the mother with the equivalent chromosomes from the father. These paired chromosomes then swap sections of DNA. Next, the cell divides, and the resulting cells divide again; this produces four new cells that each contain a single, unique copy of every chromosome.
In the process of swapping sections of DNA between chromosomes, the DNA molecule inside the chromosome is broken and different sections of DNA are then joined together. This can occur by one of two methods: ‘crossover events’ that produce a final chromosome made up of long sequences from each of the contributing chromosomes; and ‘non-crossover events’, where only a small section of DNA is swapped between the chromosomes.
Research has tended to focus on DNA breaks and crossover events. Now, Williams et al. have looked at the genetic sequences transmitted by both parents to 49 humans—revealing information about a total of 98 meioses—and scoured them for evidence of non-crossover events. In addition to finding 103 sites where these events occurred, Williams et al. discovered that non-crossover events are more frequent around sites where crossover events also have a higher frequency. This suggests that the mechanism that initiates non-crossover events is shared with crossovers, and that non-crossover events primarily occur during meiosis. Unexpectedly, in some areas non-crossover events were found close to each other in ‘clusters’, which had not previously been seen in humans.
Non-crossover events will only produce an observable change if the chromosomes involved have differences in the sequence of the DNA section that is swapped between them. The number of such variable genetic positions that non-crossover events affect in a generation is roughly the same number as the number of newly generated random mutations to the DNA sequence in a generation. Examining the DNA sequences transferred during non-crossover events also shows that two different types of DNA bases (cytosine and guanine) are more likely to be transmitted by a non-crossover event than are the other two bases (adenine and thymine). This bias indicates that non-crossover events are an important factor in driving genome evolution. In the future, sequencing the entire genome—the total genetic material—of many different people could provide further insights into non-crossover events in humans.