Ribosomal DNA: molecular evolution and phylogenetic inference

Q Rev Biol. 1991 Dec;66(4):411-53. doi: 10.1086/417338.


Ribosomal DNA (rDNA) sequences have been aligned and compared in a number of living organisms, and this approach has provided a wealth of information about phylogenetic relationships. Studies of rDNA sequences have been used to infer phylogenetic history across a very broad spectrum, from studies among the basal lineages of life to relationships among closely related species and populations. The reasons for the systematic versatility of rDNA include the numerous rates of evolution among different regions of rDNA (both among and within genes), the presence of many copies of most rDNA sequences per genome, and the pattern of concerted evolution that occurs among repeated copies. These features facilitate the analysis of rDNA by direct RNA sequencing, DNA sequencing (either by cloning or amplification), and restriction enzyme methodologies. Constraints imposed by secondary structure of rRNA and concerted evolution need to be considered in phylogenetic analyses, but these constraints do not appear to impede seriously the usefulness of rDNA. An analysis of aligned sequences of the four nuclear and two mitochondrial rRNA genes identified regions of these genes that are likely to be useful to address phylogenetic problems over a wide range of levels of divergence. In general, the small subunit nuclear sequences appear to be best for elucidating Precambrian divergences, the large subunit nuclear sequences for Paleozoic and Mesozoic divergences, and the organellar sequences of both subunits for Cenozoic divergences. Primer sequences were designed for use in amplifying the entire nuclear rDNA array in 15 sections by use of the polymerase chain reaction; these "universal" primers complement previously described primers for the mitochondrial rRNA genes. Pairs of primers can be selected in conjunction with the analysis of divergence of the rRNA genes to address systematic problems throughout the hierarchy of life.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Biological Evolution*
  • DNA, Ribosomal*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny*
  • Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid


  • DNA, Ribosomal