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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. May 1, 1993; 90(9): 4087–4091.

Body size, metabolic rate, generation time, and the molecular clock.


There is increasing evidence for variation in rates of nucleotide substitution among divergent taxonomic groups. Here, we summarize published rate data and show a strong relationship between substitution rate and body size. For instance, rates of nuclear and mtDNA evolution are slow in whales, intermediate in primates, and fast in rodents. A similar relationship exists for poikilothermic vertebrates. However, these taxa have slower mtDNA substitution rates overall than do homeotherms of similar size. A number of physiological and life history variables are highly correlated with body size. Of these, generation time and metabolic rate explain some patterns of rate heterogeneity equally well. In many cases, however, differences in metabolic rate explain important exceptions to the generation time model. Correlation between metabolic rate and nucleotide substitution may be mediated by (i) the mutagenic effects of oxygen radicals that are abundant by-products of aerobic respiration, and (ii) increased rates of DNA synthesis and nucleotide replacement in organisms with higher metabolic rates. Both of these factors increase mutation rate by decreasing the "nucleotide generation time," the average length of time before a nucleotide is copied either through replication or repair. Reconsideration of the generation time hypothesis to include physiological effects such as metabolic rate improves the theoretical underpinnings of molecular evolution.

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