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Mol Phylogenet Evol. 1999 Jul;12(2):115-23.

Basal divergences in birds and the phylogenetic utility of the nuclear RAG-1 gene.

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  • 1Department of Ornithology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA.


The single-copy RAG-1 gene is found throughout higher vertebrates and consists of a single 3.1-kb exon without intervening introns. A 2.9-kb region of the RAG-1 locus was sequenced for 14 basal taxa of birds plus the crocodylian outgroups Alligator and Gavialis. Phylogenetic analysis of the sequences supported the hypothesis that the deepest evolutionary split in extant birds separates paleognaths from neognaths. A deep division among neognaths separates the chicken- and duck-like birds ("galloanserines") from a clade consisting of all other birds ("plethornithines"). The relationships of these three basal clades in Aves were supported by high bootstrap (98 to 100%) and large decay index values (above 14). Additionally, the plethornithine clade is characterized by a 15-bp (five-codon) synapomorphic deletion relative to all other birds. RAG-1 evolves slowly, with a number of properties favoring its phylogenetic utility, including rarity of indels, minimal saturation of transition changes at 3rd positions of codons, nearly constant base composition across taxa, and no asymmetry in directional patterns of reconstructed change. However, RAG-1 does not evolve in a clocklike manner, suggesting that this gene cannot easily be used for estimating ages of ancient lineages.

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