Variation across Species in the Size of the Nuclear Genome Supports the Junk-DNA Explanation for the C-Value Paradox

Mark Pagel, Rufus A. Johnstone

Abstract

The amount of DNA in the nuclear genome (the DNA C-value) of eukaryotes varies at least 80000-fold across species, and yet bears little or no relation to organismic complexity or to the number of proteincoding genes. This phenomenon is known as the C-value paradox. One explanation for the C-value paradox attributes the size of the nuclear genome to `junk' (typically non-coding) genetic elements that accumulate until the costs to the organism of replicating excess DNA select against it. Across species, organisms that develop at a slower rate should tolerate more junk DNA. Alternatively, junk DNA may function as a nucleo-skeleton to maintain the volume of the nucleus at a size proportional to the volume of the cytoplasm in the cell. Across species, the DNA C-value is predicted to vary with the nuclear and cytoplasmic volumes of cells. Previous studies have not been able to distinguish between the skeletal-DNA and junk-DNA explanations for the C-value paradox. We report a study of DNA content in 24 salamander species which does. The size of the nuclear genome is correlated with developmental rate even after the effects of nuclear and cytoplasmic volume have been removed. However, genome size is not correlated with cytoplasmic volume after controlling for developmental rate. These results support the view that junk DNA accumulates in the nuclear genome until the costs of replicating it become too great, rather than that it functions as a nucleo-skeleton.