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Alu elements represent the largest family of human mobile elements in copy number. A controversial issue with implications for both Alu biology and human genome evolution is whether selective pressures are affecting Alu elements on a large scale. To address this issue, we analyzed the genomic distribution of the three youngest known human Alu subfamilies (Ya5a2, Ya8 and Yb9) in conjunction with their insertion polymorphism status in the human population, since selection can only act on polymorphic elements. Our results indicate that: (i) polymorphic and fixed recently integrated Alu elements are found in genomic regions whose GC contents are statistically indistinguishable, and (ii) recently integrated Alu elements are inserted randomly, regardless of the GC content of the surrounding genomic DNA. These results provide strong evidence that recently integrated "young" Alu elements are not subject to positive or negative selection on a large scale. Therefore, young Alu elements can be regarded as essentially neutral residents of the human genome. These results also imply that selective processes specifically targeting Alu elements can be ruled out as explanations for the accumulation of Alu elements in GC-rich regions of the human genome. © 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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