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Chromatin structure and evolution in the human genome

James GD Prendergast1*, Harry Campbell3, Nick Gilbert2, Malcolm G Dunlop1, Wendy A Bickmore2 and Colin AM Semple2

Author Affiliations

1 Colon Cancer Genetics Group, Division of Oncology, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2XU, UK

2 MRC Human Genetics Unit, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2XU,UK

3 Public Health Sciences, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:72  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-72

Published: 9 May 2007



Evolutionary rates are not constant across the human genome but genes in close proximity have been shown to experience similar levels of divergence and selection. The higher-order organisation of chromosomes has often been invoked to explain such phenomena but previously there has been insufficient data on chromosome structure to investigate this rigorously. Using the results of a recent genome-wide analysis of open and closed human chromatin structures we have investigated the global association between divergence, selection and chromatin structure for the first time.


In this study we have shown that, paradoxically, synonymous site divergence (dS) at non-CpG sites is highest in regions of open chromatin, primarily as a result of an increased number of transitions, while the rates of other traditional measures of mutation (intergenic, intronic and ancient repeat divergence as well as SNP density) are highest in closed regions of the genome. Analysis of human-chimpanzee divergence across intron-exon boundaries indicates that although genes in relatively open chromatin generally display little selection at their synonymous sites, those in closed regions show markedly lower divergence at their fourfold degenerate sites than in neighbouring introns and intergenic regions. Exclusion of known Exonic Splice Enhancer hexamers has little affect on the divergence observed at fourfold degenerate sites across chromatin categories; however, we show that closed chromatin is enriched with certain classes of ncRNA genes whose RNA secondary structure may be particularly important.


We conclude that, overall, non-CpG mutation rates are lowest in open regions of the genome and that regions of the genome with a closed chromatin structure have the highest background mutation rate. This might reflect lower rates of DNA damage or enhanced DNA repair processes in regions of open chromatin. Our results also indicate that dS is a poor measure of mutation rates, particularly when used in closed regions of the genome, as genes in closed regions generally display relatively strong levels of selection at their synonymous sites.