Microsatellites are abundant in eukaryotic genomes and have high rates of strand slippage-induced repeat number alterations. They are popular genetic markers, and their mutations are associated with numerous neurological diseases. However, the minimal number of repeats required to constitute a microsatellite has been debated, and a definition of a microsatellite that considers its mutational behavior has been lacking. To define a microsatellite, we investigated slippage dynamics for a range of repeat sizes, utilizing two approaches. Computationally, we assessed length polymorphism at repeat loci in ten ENCODE regions resequenced in four human populations, assuming that the occurrence of polymorphism reflects strand slippage rates. Experimentally, we determined the in vitro DNA polymerase-mediated strand slippage error rates as a function of repeat number. In both approaches, we compared strand slippage rates at tandem repeats with the background slippage rates. We observed two distinct modes of mutational behavior. At small repeat numbers, slippage rates were low and indistinguishable from background measurements. A marked transition in mutability was observed as the repeat array lengthened, such that slippage rates at large repeat numbers were significantly higher than the background rates. For both mononucleotide and dinucleotide microsatellites studied, the transition length corresponded to a similar number of nucleotides (approximately 10). Thus, microsatellite threshold is determined not by the presence/absence of strand slippage at repeats but by an abrupt alteration in slippage rates relative to background. These findings have implications for understanding microsatellite mutagenesis, standardization of genome-wide microsatellite analyses, and predicting polymorphism levels of individual microsatellite loci.
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