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J Hered. 1998 Sep-Oct;89(5):459-64.

Species identification using genetic tools: the value of nuclear and mitochondrial gene sequences in whale conservation.

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  • 1Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


DNA sequence analysis is a powerful tool for identifying the source of samples thought to be derived from threatened or endangered species. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from retail whale meat markets has shown consistently that the expected baleen whale in these markets, the minke whale, makes up only about half the products analyzed. The other products are either unregulated small toothed whales like dolphins or are protected baleen whales such as humpback, Bryde's, fin, or blue whales. Independent verification of such mtDNA identifications requires analysis of nuclear genetic loci, but this is technically more difficult than standard mtDNA sequencing. In addition, evolution of species-specific sequences (i.e., fixation of sequence differences to produce reciprocally monophyletic gene trees) is slower in nuclear than in mitochondrial genes primarily because genetic drift is slower at nuclear loci. When will use of nuclear sequences allow forensic DNA identification? Comparison of neutral theories of coalescence of mitochondrial and nuclear loci suggests a simple rule of thumb. The "three-times rule" suggests that phylogenetic sorting at nuclear loci is likely to produce species-specific sequences when mitochondrial alleles are reciprocally monophyletic and the branches leading to the mtDNA sequences of a species are three times longer than the average difference observed within species. A preliminary test of the three-times rule, which depends on many assumptions about the species and genes involved, suggests that blue and fin whales should have species-specific sequences at most neutral nuclear loci, whereas humpback and fin whales should show species-specific sequences at fewer nuclear loci. Partial sequences of actin introns from these species confirm the predictions of the three-times rule and show that blue and fin whales are reciprocally monophyletic at this locus. These intron sequences are thus good tools for the identification of these species and will afford a chance to identify putative hybrid blue/fin whales thought to have entered the retail market after 1989.

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