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Detection of weakly conserved ancestral mammalian regulatory sequences by primate comparisons

Qian-fei Wang123*, Shyam Prabhakar12, Sumita Chanan1, Jan-Fang Cheng12, Edward M Rubin12 and Dario Boffelli12*

Author Affiliations

1 Genomics Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720 USA

2 US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, Walnut Creek, California 94598, USA

3 Current address: Section of Hematology/Oncology, Department of Medicine, University of Chicago, 5814 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

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Genome Biology 2007, 8:R1  doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-1-r1

Published: 3 January 2007



Genomic comparisons between human and distant, non-primate mammals are commonly used to identify cis-regulatory elements based on constrained sequence evolution. However, these methods fail to detect functional elements that are too weakly conserved among mammals to distinguish them from non-functional DNA.


To evaluate a strategy for large scale genome annotation that is complementary to the commonly used distal species comparisons, we explored the potential of deep intra-primate sequence comparisons. We sequenced the orthologs of 558 kb of human genomic sequence, covering multiple loci involved in cholesterol homeostasis, in 6 non-human primates. Our analysis identified six non-coding DNA elements displaying significant conservation among primates but undetectable in more distant comparisons. In vitro and in vivo tests revealed that at least three of these six elements have regulatory function. Notably, the mouse orthologs of these three functional human sequences had regulatory activity despite their lack of significant sequence conservation, indicating that they are ancestral mammalian cis-regulatory elements. These regulatory elements could be detected even in a smaller set of three primate species including human, rhesus and marmoset.


We have demonstrated that intra-primate sequence comparisons can be used to identify functional modules in large genomic regions, including cis-regulatory elements that are not detectable through comparison with non-mammalian genomes. With the available human and rhesus genomes and that of marmoset, which is being actively sequenced, this strategy can be extended to the whole genome in the near future.