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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Jun;28(6):1927-42. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr014. Epub 2011 Jan 17.

Evolution of modern birds revealed by mitogenomics: timing the radiation and origin of major orders.

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Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics, The Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University, AZ, USA.


Mitochondrial (mt) genes and genomes are among the major sources of data for evolutionary studies in birds. This places mitogenomic studies in birds at the core of intense debates in avian evolutionary biology. Indeed, complete mt genomes are actively been used to unveil the phylogenetic relationships among major orders, whereas single genes (e.g., cytochrome c oxidase I [COX1]) are considered standard for species identification and defining species boundaries (DNA barcoding). In this investigation, we study the time of origin and evolutionary relationships among Neoaves orders using complete mt genomes. First, we were able to solve polytomies previously observed at the deep nodes of the Neoaves phylogeny by analyzing 80 mt genomes, including 17 new sequences reported in this investigation. As an example, we found evidence indicating that columbiforms and charadriforms are sister groups. Overall, our analyses indicate that by improving the taxonomic sampling, complete mt genomes can solve the evolutionary relationships among major bird groups. Second, we used our phylogenetic hypotheses to estimate the time of origin of major avian orders as a way to test if their diversification took place prior to the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary. Such timetrees were estimated using several molecular dating approaches and conservative calibration points. Whereas we found time estimates slightly younger than those reported by others, most of the major orders originated prior to the K/T boundary. Finally, we used our timetrees to estimate the rate of evolution of each mt gene. We found great variation on the mutation rates among mt genes and within different bird groups. COX1 was the gene with less variation among Neoaves orders and the one with the least amount of rate heterogeneity across lineages. Such findings support the choice of COX 1 among mt genes as target for developing DNA barcoding approaches in birds.

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