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J Hered. 2000 May-Jun;91(3):221-7.

Pseudogene evolution and natural selection for a compact genome.

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Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Pseudogenes are nonfunctional copies of protein-coding genes that are presumed to evolve without selective constraints on their coding function. They are of considerable utility in evolutionary genetics because, in the absence of selection, different types of mutations in pseudogenes should have equal probabilities of fixation. This theoretical inference justifies the estimation of patterns of spontaneous mutation from the analysis of patterns of substitutions in pseudogenes. Although it is possible to test whether pseudogene sequences evolve without constraints for their protein-coding function, it is much more difficult to ascertain whether pseudogenes may affect fitness in ways unrelated to their nucleotide sequence. Consider the possibility that a pseudogene affects fitness merely by increasing genome size. If a larger genome is deleterious--for example, because of increased energetic costs associated with genome replication and maintenance--then deletions, which decrease the length of a pseudogene, should be selectively advantageous relative to insertions or nucleotide substitutions. In this article we examine the implications of selection for genome size relative to small (1-400 bp) deletions, in light of empirical evidence pertaining to the size distribution of deletions observed in Drosophila and mammalian pseudogenes. There is a large difference in the deletion spectra between these organisms. We argue that this difference cannot easily be attributed to selection for overall genome size, since the magnitude of selection is unlikely to be strong enough to significantly affect the probability of fixation of small deletions in Drosophila.

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