Over 1,300 conserved non-coding sequences were identified that appear to have undergone dramatic human-specific changes in selective pressures; these are enriched in recent segmental duplications, suggesting a recent change in selective constraint following duplication.
Gene regulation is considered one of the driving forces of evolution. Although protein-coding DNA sequences and RNA genes have been subject to recent evolutionary events in the human lineage, it has been hypothesized that the large phenotypic divergence between humans and chimpanzees has been driven mainly by changes in gene regulation rather than altered protein-coding gene sequences. Comparative analysis of vertebrate genomes has revealed an abundance of evolutionarily conserved but noncoding sequences. These conserved noncoding (CNC) sequences may well harbor critical regulatory variants that have driven recent human evolution.
Here we identify 1,356 CNC sequences that appear to have undergone dramatic human-specific changes in selective pressures, at least 15% of which have substitution rates significantly above that expected under neutrality. The 1,356 'accelerated CNC' (ANC) sequences are enriched in recent segmental duplications, suggesting a recent change in selective constraint following duplication. In addition, single nucleotide polymorphisms within ANC sequences have a significant excess of high frequency derived alleles and high FSTvalues relative to controls, indicating that acceleration and positive selection are recent in human populations. Finally, a significant number of single nucleotide polymorphisms within ANC sequences are associated with changes in gene expression. The probability of variation in an ANC sequence being associated with a gene expression phenotype is fivefold higher than variation in a control CNC sequence.
Our analysis suggests that ANC sequences have until very recently played a role in human evolution, potentially through lineage-specific changes in gene regulation.