DNA sequence evolution: the sounds of silence

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1995 Sep 29;349(1329):241-7. doi: 10.1098/rstb.1995.0108.


Silent sites (positions that can undergo synonymous substitutions) in protein-coding genes can illuminate two evolutionary processes. First, despite being silent, they may be subject to natural selection. Among eukaryotes this is exemplified by yeast, where synonymous codon usage patterns are shaped by selection for particular codons that are more efficiently and/or accurately translated by the most abundant tRNAs; codon usage across the genome, and the abundance of different tRNA species, are highly co-adapted. Second, in the absence of selection, silent sites reveal underlying mutational patterns. Codon usage varies enormously among human genes, and yet silent sites do not appear to be influenced by natural selection, suggesting that mutation patterns vary among regions of the genome. At first, the yeast and human genomes were thought to reflect a dichotomy between unicellular and multicellular organisms. However, it now appears that natural selection shapes codon usage in some multicellular species (e.g. Drosophila and Caenorhabditis), and that regional variations in mutation biases occur in yeast. Silent sites (in serine codons) also provide evidence for mutational events changing adjacent nucleotides simultaneously.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Codon*
  • DNA*
  • Drosophila / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome
  • Humans
  • Mammals / genetics
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutation
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / genetics
  • Selection, Genetic


  • Codon
  • DNA