With the publication of the draft chicken genome and the recent production of several BAC clone libraries from non-avian reptiles and birds, it is now possible to undertake more detailed comparative genomic studies in Reptilia. Of interest in particular are the genomic events that transformed the large, repeat-rich genomes of mammals and non-avian reptiles into the minimalist chicken genome. We have used paired BAC end sequences (BESs) from the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) to investigate patterns of sequence divergence, gene and retroelement content, and microsynteny between these species and chicken.
From a total of 11,967 curated BESs, we successfully mapped 725, 773 and 2597 sequences in alligator, turtle, and emu, respectively, to sites in the draft chicken genome using a stringent BLAST protocol. Most commonly, sequences mapped to a single site in the chicken genome. Of 1675, 1828 and 2936 paired BESs obtained for alligator, turtle, and emu, respectively, a total of 34 (alligator, 2%), 24 (turtle, 1.3%) and 479 (emu, 16.3%) pairs were found to map with high confidence and in the correct orientation and with BAC-sized intermarker distances to single chicken chromosomes, including 25 such paired hits in emu mapping to the chicken Z chromosome. By determining the insert sizes of a subset of BAC clones from these three species, we also found a significant correlation between the intermarker distance in alligator and turtle and in chicken, with slopes as expected on the basis of the ratio of the genome sizes.
Our results suggest that a large number of small-scale chromosomal rearrangements and deletions in the lineage leading to chicken have drastically reduced the number of detected syntenies observed between the chicken and alligator, turtle, and emu genomes and imply that small deletions occurring widely throughout the genomes of reptilian and avian ancestors led to the ~50% reduction in genome size observed in birds compared to reptiles. We have also mapped and identified likely gene regions in hundreds of new BAC clones from these species.