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Mol Biol Evol. 2010 Apr;27(4):942-53. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msp299. Epub 2009 Dec 2.

Multiple evolutionary rate classes in animal genome evolution.

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School of Mathematical Sciences, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD, Australia.


The proportion of functional sequence in the human genome is currently a subject of debate. The most widely accepted figure is that approximately 5% is under purifying selection. In Drosophila, estimates are an order of magnitude higher, though this corresponds to a similar quantity of sequence. These estimates depend on the difference between the distribution of genomewide evolutionary rates and that observed in a subset of sequences presumed to be neutrally evolving. Motivated by the widening gap between these estimates and experimental evidence of genome function, especially in mammals, we developed a sensitive technique for evaluating such distributions and found that they are much more complex than previously apparent. We found strong evidence for at least nine well-resolved evolutionary rate classes in an alignment of four Drosophila species and at least seven classes in an alignment of four mammals, including human. We also identified at least three rate classes in human ancestral repeats. By positing that the largest of these ancestral repeat classes is neutrally evolving, we estimate that the proportion of nonneutrally evolving sequence is 30% of human ancestral repeats and 45% of the aligned portion of the genome. However, we also question whether any of the classes represent neutrally evolving sequences and argue that a plausible alternative is that they reflect variable structure-function constraints operating throughout the genomes of complex organisms.

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