Evolution in bacteria: evidence for a universal substitution rate in cellular genomes

J Mol Evol. 1987;26(1-2):74-86. doi: 10.1007/BF02111283.


This paper constructs a temporal scale for bacterial evolution by tying ecological events that took place at known times in the geological past to specific branch points in the genealogical tree relating the 16S ribosomal RNAs of eubacteria, mitochondria, and chloroplasts. One thus obtains a relationship between time and bacterial RNA divergence which can be used to estimate times of divergence between other branches in the bacterial tree. According to this approach, Salmonella typhimurium and Escherichia coli diverged between 120 and 160 million years (Myr) ago, a date which fits with evidence that the chief habitats occupied now by these two enteric species became available that long ago. The median extent of divergence between S. typhimurium and E. coli at synonymous sites for 21 kilobases of protein-coding DNA is 100%. This implies a silent substitution rate of 0.7-0.8%/Myr--a rate remarkably similar to that observed in the nuclear genes of mammals, invertebrates, and flowering plants. Similarities in the substitution rates of eucaryotes and procaryotes are not limited to silent substitutions in protein-coding regions. The average substitution rate for 16S rRNA in eubacteria is about 1%/50 Myr, similar to the average rate for 18S rRNA in vertebrates and flowering plants. Likewise, we estimate a mean rate of roughly 1%/25 Myr for 5S rRNA in both eubacteria and eucaryotes. For a few protein-coding genes of these enteric bacteria, the extent of silent substitution since the divergence of S. typhimurium and E. coli is much lower than 100%, owing to extreme bias in the usage of synonymous codons. Furthermore, in these bacteria, rates of amino acid replacement were about 20 times lower, on average, than the silent rate. By contrast, for the mammalian genes studied to date, the average replacement rate is only four to five times lower than the rate of silent substitution.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Fossils
  • Genes, Bacterial*
  • Genetic Variation
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA, Ribosomal / genetics


  • RNA, Ribosomal