Alpha satellite insertions and the evolutionary landscape of centromeres

Human centromeres are composed of alpha satellite DNA hierarchically organized as higher-order repeats and epigenetically specified by CENP-A binding. Current evolutionary models assert that new centromeres are first epigenetically established and subsequently acquire an alphoid array. We identified during routine prenatal aneuploidy diagnosis by FISH a de novo insertion of alpha satellite DNA array (~50-300 kbp) from the centromere of chromosome 18 (D18Z1) into chromosome 15q26 euchromatin. Although bound by CENP-B, this locus did not acquire centromeric functionality as demonstrated by lack of constriction and absence of CENP-A binding.

We characterized the rearrangement by FISH and sequencing using Illumina, PacBio, and Nanopore adaptive sampling which revealed that the insertion was associated with a 2.8 kbp deletion and likely occurred in the paternal germline. Notably, the site was located ~10 Mbp distal from the location where a centromere was ancestrally seeded and then became inactive sometime between 20 and 25 million years ago (Mya), in the common ancestor of humans and apes.

Long reads spanning either junction showed that the organization of the alphoid insertion followed the 12-mer higher-order repeat structure of the D18Z1 array. Mapping to the CHM13 human genome assembly revealed that the satellite segment transposed from a specific location of chromosome 18 centromere. The rearrangement did not directly disrupt any gene or predicted regulatory element and did not alter the epigenetic status of the surrounding region, consistent with the absence of phenotypic consequences in the carrier.

This case demonstrates a likely rare but new class of structural variation that we name ‘alpha satellite insertion’. It also expands our knowledge about the evolutionary life cycle of centromeres, conveying the possibility that alphoid arrays can relocate near vestigial centromeric sites.

Authors: Giuliana Giannuzzi, Glennis A. Logsdon, Nicolas Chatron, Danny E. Miller, Julie Reversat, Katherine M. Munson, Kendra Hoekzema, Marie-Noëlle Bonnet-Dupeyron, Pierre-Antoine Rollat-Farnier, Carl A. Baker, Damien Sanlaville, Evan E. Eichler, Caroline Schluth-Bolard, Alexandre Reymond