Approximately 13% of the human genome can fold into non-canonical (non-B) DNA structures (e.g. G-quadruplexes, Z-DNA, etc.), which have been implicated in vital cellular processes. Non-B DNA also hinders replication, increasing errors and facilitating mutagenesis, yet its contribution to genome-wide variation in mutation rates remains unexplored. Here, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of nucleotide substitution frequencies at non-B DNA loci within noncoding, non-repetitive genome regions, their ±2 kb flanking regions, and 1-Megabase windows, using human-orangutan divergence and human single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Functional data analysis at single-base resolution demonstrated that substitution frequencies are usually elevated at non-B DNA, with patterns specific to each non-B DNA type. Mirror, direct and inverted repeats have higher substitution frequencies in spacers than in repeat arms, whereas G-quadruplexes, particularly stable ones, have higher substitution frequencies in loops than in stems. Several non-B DNA types also affect substitution frequencies in their flanking regions. Finally, non-B DNA explains more variation than any other predictor in multiple regression models for diversity or divergence at 1-Megabase scale. Thus, non-B DNA substantially contributes to variation in substitution frequencies at small and large scales. Our results highlight the role of non-B DNA in germline mutagenesis with implications to evolution and genetic diseases.
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