Polymorphic sites and the mechanism of evolution in human mitochondrial DNA

Genetics. 1984 Mar;106(3):479-99. doi: 10.1093/genetics/106.3.479.


Twelve restriction enzymes were used to screen for the presence or absence of cleavage sites at 441 locations in the mitochondrial DNA of 112 humans from four continents. Cleavage maps were constructed by comparison of DNA fragment sizes with those expected from the published sequence for one human mtDNA. One hundred and sixty-three of the sites were polymorphic, i.e., present in some individuals but absent from others, 278 sites being invariant. These polymorphisms probably result from single base substitutions and occur in all functional regions of the genome.--In 77 cases, it was possible to specify the exact nature and location (within a restriction site) of the mutation responsible for the absence of a restriction site in a known human mtDNA sequence and its presence in another human mtDNA. Fifty-two of these 77 gain mutations occur in genes coding for proteins, 34 being silent and 18 causing amino acid replacements; moreover, nine of the replacements are radical.--Notable also is the anomalous ratio of transitions to transversions required to account for these 77 restriction site differences between the known human mtDNA sequences and other human mtDNAs. This ratio is lower for most groups of restriction sites than has been reported from sequence comparisons of limited parts of the mtDNA genome in closely related mammals, perhaps indicating a special functional role or sensitivity to mutagenesis for palindromic regions containing high levels of guanine and cytosine.--From the genomic distribution of the 163 polymorphic sites, it is inferred that the level of point mutational variability in tRNA and rRNA genes is nearly as high as in protein-coding genes but lower than in noncoding mtDNA. Thus, the functional constraints operating on components of the protein-synthetic apparatus may be lower for mitochondria than for other systems. Furthermore, the mitochondrial genes for tRNAs that recognize four codons are more variable than those recognizing only two codons.--Among the more variable of the human mitochondrial genes coding for proteins is that for subunit 2 of cytochrome oxidase; this polypeptide appears to have been evolving about five times faster in primates than in other mammals. Cytochrome c, a nuclearly encoded protein that interacts directly with the oxidase 2 subunit in electron transport, has also evolved faster in primates than in rodents or ungulates. This example, along with that for the mitochondrial rRNA genes and the nuclear genes coding for mitochondrial ribosomal proteins, provides evidence for coevolution between specific nuclear and mitochondrial genes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Codon
  • DNA Restriction Enzymes
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation
  • Humans
  • Liver / analysis
  • Placenta / analysis
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Pregnancy
  • RNA, Ribosomal / genetics
  • RNA, Transfer / genetics


  • Codon
  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • RNA, Ribosomal
  • RNA, Transfer
  • DNA Restriction Enzymes