Counterbalancing the time-dependent effect on the human mitochondrial DNA molecular clock

BMC Evol Biol. 2020 Jun 29;20(1):78. doi: 10.1186/s12862-020-01640-5.


Background: The molecular clock is an important genetic tool for estimating evolutionary timescales. However, the detection of a time-dependent effect on substitution rate estimates complicates its application. It has been suggested that demographic processes could be the main cause of this confounding effect. In the present study, I propose a new algorithm for estimating the coalescent age of phylogenetically related sequences, taking into account the observed time-dependent effect on the molecular rate detected by others.

Results: By applying this method to real human mitochondrial DNA trees with shallow and deep topologies, I obtained significantly older molecular ages for the main events of human evolution than were previously estimated. These ages are in close agreement with the most recent archaeological and paleontological records favoring the emergence of early anatomically modern humans in Africa 315 ± 34 thousand years ago (kya) and the presence of recent modern humans outside of Africa as early as 174 ± 48 thousand years ago. Furthermore, during the implementation process, I demonstrated that in a population with fluctuating sizes, the probability of fixation of a new neutral mutant depends on the effective population size, which is in better accordance with the fact that under the neutral theory of molecular evolution, the fate of a molecular mutation is mainly determined by random drift.

Conclusions: I suggest that the demographic history of populations has a more decisive effect than purifying selection and/or mutational saturation on the time-dependent effect observed for the substitution rate, and I propose a new method that corrects for this effect.

Keywords: Human evolution; Molecular clock; Mutation rate.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Models, Genetic
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Phylogeny
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Time Factors


  • DNA, Mitochondrial