Sequence divergence, functional constraint, and selection in protein evolution

Annu Rev Genomics Hum Genet. 2003;4:213-35. doi: 10.1146/annurev.genom.4.020303.162528.


The genome sequences of multiple species has enabled functional inferences from comparative genomics. A primary objective is to infer biological functions from the conservation of homologous DNA sequences between species. A second, more difficult, objective is to understand what functional DNA sequences have changed over time and are responsible for species' phenotypic differences. The neutral theory of molecular evolution provides a theoretical framework in which both objectives can be explicitly tested. Development of statistical tests within this framework has provided insight into the evolutionary forces that constrain and in some cases change DNA sequences and the resulting patterns that emerge. In this article, we review recent work on how functional constraint and changes in protein function are inferred from protein polymorphism and divergence data. We relate these studies to our understanding of the neutral theory and adaptive evolution.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Proteins / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic*


  • Proteins
  • DNA