- Research article
- Open Access
Halibut mitochondrial genomes contain extensive heteroplasmic tandem repeat arrays involved in DNA recombination
- Kenneth A Mjelle†1,
- Bård O Karlsen†1,
- Tor E Jørgensen1,
- Truls Moum1 and
- Steinar D Johansen1, 2Email author
© Mjelle et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 06 July 2007
Accepted: 11 January 2008
Published: 11 January 2008
Halibuts are commercially important flatfish species confined to the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans. We have determined the complete mitochondrial genome sequences of four specimens each of Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus), Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) and Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), and assessed the nucleotide variability within and between species.
About 100 variable positions were identified within the four specimens in each halibut species, with the control regions as the most variable parts of the genomes (10 times that of the mitochondrial ribosomal DNA). Due to tandem repeat arrays, the control regions have unusually large sizes compared to most vertebrate mtDNAs. The arrays are highly heteroplasmic in size and consist mainly of different variants of a 61-bp motif. Halibut mitochondrial genomes lacking arrays were also detected.
The complexity, distribution, and biological role of the heteroplasmic tandem repeat arrays in halibut mitochondrial control regions are discussed. We conclude that the most plausible explanation for array maintenance includes both the slipped-strand mispairing and DNA recombination mechanisms.
Halibuts (family Pleuronectidae) represent the largest of the flatfish species. Whereas Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) and Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) are endemic species confined to the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, respectively, the Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) has an Arctic-boreal distribution in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All three species are commercially important flatfishes with extensive annual catch volumes, and the Atlantic halibut has further become increasingly popular in North European aquaculture . Phylogenetic analysis based on partial mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences supports a sister taxa affiliation of the Hippoglossus and Reinhardtius halibuts among the Pleuronectidae .
Genetic markers have been developed to investigate and assess genetic issues within e.g. taxonomy, systematics, conservation biology, population structuring, or breeding programs. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has become one of the most popular genetic markers [3, 4] due to its small size and stable organization, its simple inheritance pattern (maternal without apparent DNA recombination), high copy number, and elevated mutation rate compared to single-copy nuclear DNA. Vertebrate mtDNA is usually less than 17 kb in size with a plasmid-like organization, encoding only 37 gene products (13 protein-coding genes, 22 transfer RNA genes, and 2 ribosomal RNA genes) as well as a main control region (CR) containing transcriptional promoters, at least one of the replication origins as well as the displacement loop (D-loop) .
Mitogenomics has been developed to increase the resolution of mtDNA markers by including the complete mitochondrial genome sequence in the analyses. Recently, several genetic issues in bony fishes have been successfully investigated and resolved by mitogenomic analyses, e.g. higher-order taxonomy [6, 7], within-family taxonomy [8, 9], within-genus taxonomy [10, 11], and intraspecific variability among geographically separated populations [11, 12]. However, vertebrate mtDNA has some limitations and possible shortcomings as a molecular marker that are important to be aware of, and to further investigate [13, 14]. Occasional biparental inheritance has been reported, which challenges the clonal maternal nature of vertebrate mtDNA, and some of the best-known examples are found in human and mice [15, 16]. Mitochondrial DNA recombination, sometimes recognizable as a consequence of biparental inheritance, appears more frequently than originally assumed but is still a rare event in vertebrates . Here, heteroplasmic tandem repeat (HTR) arrays in the CR may change due to DNA recombination, with some notable examples reported from bony fishes [18–20]. Finally, mtDNA is not always a strictly neutral marker, and both direct and indirect selection has been noted . ATPase6 gene variation in humans  and the inherited bacterial symbionts in arthropods  represent fascinating examples of mtDNA selection.
In the present study we have assessed the nucleotide variability in halibut mitochondrial genomes within and between species. The complete mitochondrial genome sequences from four individuals each of the Atlantic-, Pacific-, and Greenland halibuts were determined and analysed. A complex organized HTR array in the mitochondrial CR was discovered and investigated in further detail. These composite arrays provide new evidence of DNA recombination in vertebrate mitochondria.
Gene content and organization of halibut mitochondrial genomes
Key features of halibut specimens and complete mtDNA sequences
Hippoglossus hippoglossus (Atlantic halibut)
Northern Norway, hatchery (Bodø)
Northern Norway, hatchery (Bodø)
Northern Norway, wild (Bodø)
Southern Norway, aquarium (Risør)
H. stenolepis (Pacific halibut)
Alaska, wild (Cook Inlet)
Canada, wild (Hecate Strait)
Canada, wild (Hecate Strait)
Canada, wild (Hecate Strait)
Reinhardtius hippoglossoides (Greenland halibut)
Northern Norway, wild (Røst)
Northern Norway, wild (Røst)
Northern Norway, wild (Røst)
Northern Norway, wild (Røst)
Verasper variegatus (Spotted halibut)
V. moseri (Barfin flounder)
The mitochondrial control regions contain heteroplasmic tandem repeat arrays
Intergenic regions are practically lacking in halibut mtDNAs, except for the short spacer between the tRNA-Asn and tRNA-Cys genes that contains the origin of light-strand (oriL) replication, and the major CR (contains the D-loop) located between the tRNA-Pro and tRNA-Phe genes (Figure 1). Whereas the former region is completely conserved in sequence between the 12 analysed halibut specimens, the latter is more variable and contains control elements like the origin of heavy-strand (oriH) replication and the transcriptional promoters.
Distribution of sequence variation within the halibut mitochondrial genomes
Estimates of gene specific variation related to the mitochondrial ribosomal DNA gene region
Halibuts; within-species 2
Halibuts; between-species 3
Theragra; within-species 4
SSU + LSU
We have sequenced and compared the complete mitochondrial genome sequences of 4 individuals each of the flatfish species Atlantic halibut, Pacific halibut, and Greenland halibut, all related members of the family Pleuronectidae. The mitochondrial genomes were similar to most other bony fish species, except for an unusual large and complex CR located between the tRNA-Pro and tRNA-Phe genes. Halibut CR contains a HTR array of a 61-bp motif, most frequently present in 15–20 copies of each individual.
The within-species variation in mtDNA includes only about 20–100 sequence positions between the individuals. These numbers correlates well with those observed among 12 individuals of Theragra pollocks [11, 12]. The variable sites are not equally distributed along the mitochondrial genome sequence, with the structural RNA genes as the most conserved sequence regions (Table 2). The latter observation is best explained by the complex structural constrains of their corresponding tRNA and rRNAs due to secondary and tertiary RNA:RNA interactions, as well as RNA:protein interactions. Interestingly, the structure determination of the vertebrate mitochondrial ribosome explains some of the dramatic reduction in size of the mitochondrial rRNAs, which leaves almost exclusively the highly conserved regions involved in ribosome function and ribosomal protein binding .
The elevated within-species sequence variation in CR observed in all three halibut species (Table 2) appears unique compared to other investigated fish mtDNA genomes. The only fish species were complete mtDNA sequences have been recovered from multiple specimens (12 individuals) is the Theragra pollocks [11, 12]. Intraspecific sequence variability estimates were similar to that of the halibut species, but with a notable exception of the CR. The Theragra CR showed variability similar to that of the protein coding genes, an observation significantly different from that of halibuts (Table 2). The variable sites in halibuts are almost exclusively located in the extended termination associated sequence (ETAS) and CSB regions located at the 5' end and 3' end of the CR, respectively. What molecular processes that causes this elevated sequence variability is currently not known, but DNA recombination events at HTR arrays (see below) are likely to be involved.
HTRs in mitochondrial CR are widespread, but scattered among vertebrates . Five different locations within the mitochondrial CR have been noted to harbour HTRs . Whereas the RS1 and RS2 sites are located at the CR 5' end in proximity to the termination association sequence, RS3 to RS5 are located close to the oriH replication at the 3' end of the CR. Thus, the presence of HTR in CR is probably associated with the DNA replication processes in vertebrate mtDNA . The complexity of HTR motifs vary greatly among different vertebrates, from simple di- and tetra-nucleotide microsatellites to motifs more than 150 bp in length and at high copy numbers [26–28].
The halibut 61-bp motif HTR array is located at site RS5 between CSB-3 and the 3' end of CR (Figure 2A), and differs from the RS1 HTR arrays seen in e.g. Atlantic cod and Asian arowana that consist of only 2–6 copies of approximately 40-bp motifs [28–30]. The RS5 HTR is a conserved feature among the Pleuronectidae where a ca 60-bp motif array is present in e.g. Spotted halibut (Verasper variegatus; DQ403797), Barfin flounder (V. moseri; EF025506), Winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus), Yellowtail flounder (Limanda ferruginea), and American plaice (Hippologlossoides platessoides) , in addition to the three halibut species investigated in this study. Interestingly, RS5 direct repeats are also noted in Soleidae, but these appear unrelated in sequence to the Pleuronectidae HTRs and do not create heteroplasmy in mtDNA . Partial sequencing of the mitochondrial CR in European flounder (Platichthys flesus) identified a different repeat motif at RS1 [19, 33]. This 19-bp motif was involved in extensive heteroplasmy identified in a study including 168 individuals . Interestingly, two different types of repeat motifs were noted among the 18 individuals studied in more detail, and one of these contains a compound array consisting of both motif types. Our finding of multiple types of HTR motifs in Atlantic-, Pacific-, and Greenland halibuts represents an extended support of the observation in European flounder. Errors during mtDNA replication (e.g. slipped strand mispairing)  cannot fully explain the halibut length heteroplasmy since repeat motifs in arrays of most individuals are not identical (Figure 2). Furthermore, technically generated mutations in the sequences, as well as the possibility that an ancestral sequence variant that contained all motif variants, are both highly unlikely explanations since the same type of motifs appear in more than one species and that eight different types were present among the four individuals of Atlantic halibut. Thus, we strongly favour DNA recombination as the most plausible mechanism, a conclusion supporting the findings of Hoarau and co-workers in European flounder mtDNA .
Is there a biological role of the mitochondrial HTR arrays in halibuts? The facts that repeat motifs are highly conserved in sequence both between individuals and between Pleuronectidae species (Figure 2) indicate a functional role in the mitochondria. However, mitochondrial genomes lacking the motif, or with only a single copy present (Figure 3), favour no essential role of the array or the motif sequences. The deletion variant (fragment d in Figure 3C) may represent a dead-end of array heteroplasmy unless the HTR motif is reintroduced by DNA recombination. Interestingly, the deleted region is flanked by identical copies of the 11-bp motif and thus probably is generated by a slipped strand mispairing-like process , similar to that reported in mitochondria associated with some human diseases . The HTR arrays in halibuts are located between the putative promoter region (3' end of CR) and oriH, and HTRs in RS5 have been functionally linked to the initiation of mtDNA replication . A role of stable secondary structures of nucleotide repeats nucleotides has been suggested. Such putative structures might act at the RNA or DNA levels , but at present no experimental biochemical evidence has been provided to support this notion in mitochondria. To further elucidate the molecular evolution and biological roles of HTR arrays in halibut mitochondrial genomes, investigations of the distribution and variation of arrays among different tissues and at different developmental stages should be performed. Studying array variability of mother and progeny would be of particular interest in order to identify possible DNA recombination events. The well studied example of similar RS5 arrays in mitochondria of European rabbits provides an interesting model system for such analyses [27, 37–39].
Unusual molecular features of halibut mitochondrial genomes are located in the control region. Extensive size heteroplasmy was detected in Atlantic-, Pacific-, and Greenland halibut mitochondrial control regions. Heteroplasmic tandem repeat arrays contain different variants of a 61-bp motif in compound organization. We conclude that the most plausible explanation for array maintenance includes both slipped-strand mispairing and DNA recombination mechanisms.
Fish samples and DNA extraction
Key-features of fish samples and mitochondrial DNA sequences used in this study are listed in Table 1. Of the 30 additional Atlantic halibut specimens obtained from a halibut hatchery at Bodø University College, 15 were wild caught (Northern Norway) and 15 were farmed progenies from the hatchery. DNA was extracted from muscle tissue and fin clip by using the High Pure PCR Template Preparation Kit (Roche).
PCR amplification, cloning, DNA sequencing, and data analysis
Specific primer sets consisting of one heavy (H) and one light (L) strand primer (Additional file 1) were used to amplify the complete halibut mitochondrial genomes in five overlapping fragments (L466/H3978, L3851/H7461, L7109/H10004, L9620/H13706, and L12991/H530). In general, the PCR reactions were performed with the following cycling parameters: 94°C initial denaturation for 3 min, 15 cycles with 94°C denaturation for 60 sec, 48°C annealing for 60 sec, 72°C elongation for 4 min. Then, 15 cycles with 94°C denaturation for 60 sec, 53°C annealing for 60 sec, 72°C elongation for 4 min and finally 72°C for 10 min. Products were run on agarose gels containing ethidium bromide, and bands were excised and purified essentially as previously described . When appropriate, PCR products were inserted into the pCR4-TOPO vector (Invitrogen) and transformed in E. coli competent cells. PCR products were sequenced on both strands by using the BigDye version 3.1 kit (Applied Biosystems) with the same primers as in the PCR and internal primers (Additional file 1). The sequencing products were analysed on an ABI genetic analyser (Applied Biosystems). In general, computer analyses of DNA sequences were performed using software package programs from DNASTAR Inc.
We thank Dag H. Coucheron for valuable discussions, Anita Ursvik for technical advices, Arild Eeg (Risør Aquarium, Norway) for providing the Hh-4 specimen of Atlantic halibut, and Michael E. Cobb (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Washingthon, USA) and Ruth Withler (Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo, Canada) for providing the Pacific halibut samples Hs-1 and Hs-2/Hs-3/Hs-4, respectively. This work was supported by grants from Bodø University College and University of Tromsø.
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