The exploration and evolution of the avian genomic dark matter

Abstract: The development and improvement of genome sequencing technologies in the last decade revolutionised the entire field of biology with genome assemblies of virtually any organism. Despite this tremendous progress, complex genomic regions are systematically missing from genome assemblies and form the so-called "genomic dark matter". The presence of genomic dark matter entails that such regions cannot be fully studied and the effects and/or functions thereof (if any) on the organisms remain hidden. Therefore, it is key to be able to explore those dark genomic corners to fully understand the evolution and physiology of organisms without biasing the interpretations. In this thesis, I contribute to the understanding of the use of new sequencing technologies to assemble complex genomic regions and to investigate the evolution of such regions throughout the avian phylogeny. First, I assessed the best combination of technologies and assembly methods to maximise the resolution of genomic dark matter using genomic data from the paradise crow. This included testing for the presence of repetitive elements, GC-rich regions, G-quadruplex motifs, non-recombining sex chromosomes, and microchromosomes. Then, the high-quality assemblies for the paradise crow and other birds allowed the discovery that the avian W chromosome features more than half of potentially active transposable elements (TEs), especially endogenous retroviruses, of the genome. This characteristic makes the W chromosome potentially "toxic" for females. The female-biased accumulation of active TEs could also play a role in the origin of genetic incompatibilities and be an explanatory variable for Haldane’s rule in birds. Next, I investigated the genetic variability of birds-of-paradise chromosomes originating from structural rearrangements with a special focus on the W chromosome. The analysis revealed more genetic variability than previously reported suggesting that all sources of genetic variability should be considered to understand the evolution of sex-limited chromosomes. Finally, I explored the evolution of another main component of avian genomic dark matter, satellite DNA, throughout the phylogeny of birds-of-paradise and closely related crow species. I found that the avian satellitome evolves in different modes in the two groups and a more comprehensive species sampling is necessary to establish which evolutionary mode is the most prevalent in birds. Altogether, the results of this thesis provide a case study for how to investigate the most complex genomic regions, highlight their possible evolutionary roles, and therefore showcase the necessity for the field to shed light into the dark corners of genomes. Mind the gap!

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