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Mol Biol Evol. 2004 Jun;21(6):1014-23. Epub 2004 Mar 10.

Similar rates but different modes of sequence evolution in introns and at exonic silent sites in rodents: evidence for selectively driven codon usage.

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  • 1Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom.


In mammals divergence at fourfold degenerate sites in codons (K(4)) and intronic sequence (K(i)) are both used to estimate the mutation rate, under the supposition that both evolve neutrally. Does it matter which of these we use? Using either class of sequence can be defended because (1) K(4) is the same as K(i) (at least in rodents) and (2) there is no selectively driven codon usage (hence no systematic selection on third sites). Here we re-examine these findings using 560 introns (for 136 genes) in the mouse-rat comparison, aligned by eye and using a new maximum likelihood protocol. We find that the rate of evolution at fourfold sites and at intronic sites is similar in magnitude, but only after eliminating putatively constrained sites from introns (first introns and sites flanking intron-exon junctions). Any approximate congruence between the two rates is not, however, owing to an underlying similarity in the mode of sequence evolution. Some dinucleotides are hypermutable and differently abundant in exons and introns (e.g., CpGs). More importantly, after controlling for relative abundance, all dinucleotides starting with A or T are more prevalent in mismatches in exons than in introns, whereas C-starting dinucleotides (except CG) are more common in introns. Although C content at intronic sites is lower than at flanking fourfold sites, G content is similar, demonstrating that there exists a strong strand-specific preference for C nucleotides that is unique to exons. Transcription-coupled mutational processes and biased gene conversion cannot explain this, as they should affect introns and flanking exons equally. Therefore, by elimination, we propose this to be strong evidence for selectively driven codon usage in mammals.

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