Synonymous genetic differences vary by more than 20-fold among genes in natural isolates of Escherichia coli. One hypothesis to explain this heterogeneity is that genes with high levels of synonymous variation mutate at higher rates than genes with low synonymous variation. If so, then one would expect to observe similar mutational patterns in evolution experiments. In fact, however, the pattern of synonymous substitutions in a long-term evolution experiment with E. coli does not support this hypothesis. In particular, the extent of synonymous variation across genes in that experiment does not reflect the variation observed in natural isolates of E. coli. Instead, gene length alone predicts with high accuracy the prevalence of synonymous changes in the experimental populations. We hypothesize that patterns of synonymous variation in natural E. coli populations are instead caused by differences across genomic regions in their effective population size that, in turn, reflect different histories of recombination, horizontal gene transfer, selection, and population structure.
Keywords: effective population size; experimental evolution; genetic variation; mutation rate.
© The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.