We analyze published data from 592 AC microsatellite loci from 98 species in five vertebrate classes including fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. We use these data to address nine major questions about microsatellite evolution. First, we find that larger genomes do not have more microsatellite loci and therefore reject the hypothesis that microsatellites function primarily to package DNA into chromosomes. Second, we confirm that microsatellite loci are relatively rare in avian genomes, but reject the hypothesis that this is due to physical constraints imposed by flight. Third, we find that microsatellite variation differs among species within classes, possibly relating to population dynamics. Fourth, we reject the hypothesis that microsatellite structure (length, number of alleles, allele dispersion, range in allele sizes) differs between poikilotherms and homeotherms. The difference is found only in fish, which have longer microsatellites and more alleles than the other classes. Fifth, we find that the range in microsatellite allele size at a locus is largely due to the number of alleles and secondarily to allele dispersion. Sixth, length is a major factor influencing mutation rate. Seventh, there is a directional mutation toward an increase in microsatellite length. Eighth, at the species level, microsatellite and allozyme heterozygosity covary and therefore inferences based on large-scale studies of allozyme variation may also reflect microsatellite genetic diversity. Finally, published microsatellite loci (isolated using conventional hybridization methods) provide a biased estimate of the actual mean repeat length of microsatellites in the genome.
Corresponding Editor: B. Bowen