Although it is known that the mutation rate varies across the genome, previous estimates were based on averaging across various numbers of positions. Here, we describe a method to measure the origination rates of target mutations at target base positions and apply it to a 6-bp region in the human hemoglobin subunit beta (HBB) gene and to the identical, paralogous hemoglobin subunit delta (HBD) region in sperm cells from both African and European donors. The HBB region of interest (ROI) includes the site of the hemoglobin S (HbS) mutation, which protects against malaria, is common in Africa, and has served as a classic example of adaptation by random mutation and natural selection. We found a significant correspondence between de novo mutation rates and past observations of alleles in carriers, showing that mutation rates vary substantially in a mutation-specific manner that contributes to the site frequency spectrum. We also found that the overall point mutation rate is significantly higher in Africans than in Europeans in the HBB region studied. Finally, the rate of the 20A→T mutation, called the “HbS mutation” when it appears in HBB, is significantly higher than expected from the genome-wide average for this mutation type. Nine instances were observed in the African HBB ROI, where it is of adaptive significance, representing at least three independent originations; no instances were observed elsewhere. Further studies will be needed to examine mutation rates at the single-mutation resolution across these and other loci and organisms and to uncover the molecular mechanisms responsible.
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© 2022 Melamed et al.