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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1996 Apr 2;93(7):2873-8.

Accelerated evolution and Muller's rachet in endosymbiotic bacteria.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tuscon 85721, USA.


Many bacteria live only within animal cells and infect hosts through cytoplasmic inheritance. These endosymbiotic lineages show distinctive population structure, with small population size and effectively no recombination. As a result, endosymbionts are expected to accumulate mildly deleterious mutations. If these constitute a substantial proportion of new mutations, endosymbionts will show (i) faster sequence evolution and (ii) a possible shift in base composition reflecting mutational bias. Analyses of 16S rDNA of five independently derived endosymbiont clades show, in every case, faster evolution in endosymbionts than in free-living relatives. For aphid endosymbionts (genus Buchnera), coding genes exhibit accelerated evolution and unusually low ratios of synonymous to nonsynonymous substitutions compared to ratios for the same genes for enterics. This concentration of the rate increase in nonsynonymous substitutions is expected under the hypothesis of increased fixation of deleterious mutations. Polypeptides for all Buchnera genes analyzed have accumulated amino acids with codon families rich in A+T, supporting the hypothesis that substitutions are deleterious in terms of polypeptide function. These observations are best explained as the result of Muller's ratchet within small asexual populations, combined with mutational bias. In light of this explanation, two observations reported earlier for Buchnera, the apparent loss of a repair gene and the overproduction of a chaperonin, may reflect compensatory evolution. An alternative hypothesis, involving selection on genomic base composition, is contradicted by the observation that the speedup is concentrated at nonsynonymous sites.

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