Background: It has long been known that rates of synonymous substitutions are unusually low in mitochondrial genes of flowering and other land plants. Although two dramatic exceptions to this pattern have recently been reported, it is unclear how often major increases in substitution rates occur during plant mitochondrial evolution and what the overall magnitude of substitution rate variation is across plants.
Results: A broad survey was undertaken to evaluate synonymous substitution rates in mitochondrial genes of angiosperms and gymnosperms. Although most taxa conform to the generality that plant mitochondrial sequences evolve slowly, additional cases of highly accelerated rates were found. We explore in detail one of these new cases, within the genus Silene. A roughly 100-fold increase in synonymous substitution rate is estimated to have taken place within the last 5 million years and involves only one of ten species of Silene sampled in this study. Examples of unusually slow sequence evolution were also identified. Comparison of the fastest and slowest lineages shows that synonymous substitution rates vary by four orders of magnitude across seed plants. In other words, some plant mitochondrial lineages accumulate more synonymous change in 10,000 years than do others in 100 million years. Several perplexing cases of gene-to-gene variation in sequence divergence within a plant were uncovered. Some of these probably reflect interesting biological phenomena, such as horizontal gene transfer, mitochondrial-to-nucleus transfer, and intragenomic variation in mitochondrial substitution rates, whereas others are likely the result of various kinds of errors.
Conclusion: The extremes of synonymous substitution rates measured here constitute by far the largest known range of rate variation for any group of organisms. These results highlight the utility of examining absolute substitution rates in a phylogenetic context rather than by traditional pairwise methods. Why substitution rates are generally so low in plant mitochondrial genomes yet occasionally increase dramatically remains mysterious.