The evolutionary origins of microsatellites are not well understood. Some investigators have suggested that point mutations that expand repeat arrays beyond a threshold size trigger microsatellites to become variable. However, little empirical data has been brought forth on this and related issues. In this study, we examine the evolutionary history of microsatellites in six species within the obscura group of Drosophila, tracing changes in microsatellite alleles using both PCR product size and sequence data. We found little evidence supporting a general role of point mutations triggering initial microsatellite expansion, and no consistent threshold size for expansion was observed. Flanking region length variation was extensive when alleles were sequenced in distantly related species, and some species possessed altogether different repeat arrays between the same primer binding sites. Our results suggest extreme caution in using microsatellite allele sizes for phylogenetic analyses or to infer divergences between populations.
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