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Genetics. 1995 Oct; 141(2): 771–783.
PMCID: PMC1206772

Estimating Substitution Rates in Ribosomal RNA Genes


A model is introduced describing nucleotide substitution in ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes. In this model, substitution in the stem and loop regions of rRNA is modeled with 16- and four-state continuous time Markov chains, respectively. The mean substitution rates at nucleotide sites are assumed to follow gamma distributions that are different for the two types of regions. The simplest formulation of the model allows for explicit expressions for transition probabilities of the Markov processes to be found. These expressions were used to analyze several 16S-like rRNA genes from higher eukaryotes with the maximum likelihood method. Although the observed proportion of invariable sites was only slightly higher in the stem regions, the estimated average substitution rates in the stem regions were almost two times as high as in the loop regions. Therefore, the degree of site heterogeneity of substitution rates in the stem regions seems to be higher than in the loop regions of animal 16S-like rRNAs due to presence of a few rapidly evolving sites. The model appears to be helpful in understanding the regularities of nucleotide substitution in rRNAs and probably minimizing errors in recovering phylogeny for distantly related taxa from these genes.

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Selected References

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