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PLoS Biol. 2006 Apr;4(4):e91. Epub 2006 Mar 14.

Retroposed elements as archives for the evolutionary history of placental mammals.

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Institute of Experimental Pathology, Center for Molecular Biology of Inflammation, University of Münster, Münster, Germany.


Reconstruction of the placental mammalian (eutherian) evolutionary tree has undergone diverse revisions, and numerous aspects remain hotly debated. Initial hierarchical divisions based on morphology contained many misgroupings due to features that evolved independently by similar selection processes. Molecular analyses corrected many of these misgroupings and the superordinal hierarchy of placental mammals was recently assembled into four clades. However, long or rapid evolutionary periods, as well as directional mutation pressure, can produce molecular homoplasies, similar characteristics lacking common ancestors. Retroposed elements, by contrast, integrate randomly into genomes with negligible probabilities of the same element integrating independently into orthologous positions in different species. Thus, presence/absence analyses of these elements are a superior strategy for molecular systematics. By computationally scanning more than 160,000 chromosomal loci and judiciously selecting from only phylogenetically informative retroposons for experimental high-throughput PCR applications, we recovered 28 clear, independent monophyly markers that conclusively verify the earliest divergences in placental mammalian evolution. Using tests that take into account ancestral polymorphisms, multiple long interspersed elements and long terminal repeat element insertions provide highly significant evidence for the monophyletic clades Boreotheria (synonymous with Boreoeutheria), Supraprimates (synonymous with Euarchontoglires), and Laurasiatheria. More importantly, two retropositions provide new support for a prior scenario of early mammalian evolution that places the basal placental divergence between Xenarthra and Epitheria, the latter comprising all remaining placentals. Due to its virtually homoplasy-free nature, the analysis of retroposon presence/absence patterns avoids the pitfalls of other molecular methodologies and provides a rapid, unequivocal means for revealing the evolutionary history of organisms.

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