Synonymous and nonsynonymous substitutions in mammalian genes and the nearly neutral theory

J Mol Evol. 1995 Jan;40(1):56-63. doi: 10.1007/BF00166595.


The nearly neutral theory of molecular evolution predicts larger generation-time effects for synonymous than for nonsynonymous substitutions. This prediction is tested using the sequences of 49 single-copy genes by calculating the average and variance of synonymous and nonsynonymous substitutions in mammalian star phylogenies (rodentia, artiodactyla, and primates). The average pattern of the 49 genes supports the prediction of the nearly neutral theory, with some notable exceptions. The nearly neutral theory also predicts that the variance of the evolutionary rate is larger than the value predicted by the completely neutral theory. This prediction is tested by examining the dispersion index (ratio of the variance to the mean), which is positively correlated with the average substitution number. After weighting by the lineage effects, this correlation almost disappears for nonsynonymous substitutions, but not quite so for synonymous substitutions. After weighting, the dispersion indices of both synonymous and nonsynonymous substitutions still exceed values expected under the simple Poisson process. The results indicate that both the systematic bias in evolutionary rate among the lineages and the episodic type of rate variation are contributing to the large variance. The former is more significant to synonymous substitutions than to nonsynonymous substitutions. Isochore evolution may be similar to synonymous substitutions. The rate and pattern found here are consistent with the nearly neutral theory, such that the relative contributions of drift and selection differ between the two types of substitutions. The results are also consistent with Gillespie's episodic selection theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Mammals / genetics*
  • Models, Theoretical