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Open Access Research article

The surprising negative correlation of gene length and optimal codon use - disentangling translational selection from GC-biased gene conversion in yeast

Nina Stoletzki

Author affiliations

Ludwig-Maximilan Universit├Ąt, Biocenter, Grosshadernerstr. 2, D-82152 Planegg-Martinsried, Germany

Centre for the Study of Evolution, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK

Current Address: Division of Genetics, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, 77, Louis Pasteur Avenue, NRB, Boston, MA, USA

Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:93  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-93

Published: 11 April 2011



Surprisingly, in several multi-cellular eukaryotes optimal codon use correlates negatively with gene length. This contrasts with the expectation under selection for translational accuracy. While suggested explanations focus on variation in strength and efficiency of translational selection, it has rarely been noticed that the negative correlation is reported only in organisms whose optimal codons are biased towards codons that end with G or C (-GC). This raises the question whether forces that affect base composition - such as GC-biased gene conversion - contribute to the negative correlation between optimal codon use and gene length.


Yeast is a good organism to study this as equal numbers of optimal codons end in -GC and -AT and one may hence compare frequencies of optimal GC- with optimal AT-ending codons to disentangle the forces. Results of this study demonstrate in yeast frequencies of GC-ending (optimal AND non-optimal) codons decrease with gene length and increase with recombination. A decrease of GC-ending codons along genes contributes to the negative correlation with gene length. Correlations with recombination and gene expression differentiate between GC-ending and optimal codons, and also substitution patterns support effects of GC-biased gene conversion.


While the general effect of GC-biased gene conversion is well known, the negative correlation of optimal codon use with gene length has not been considered in this context before. Initiation of gene conversion events in promoter regions and the presence of a gene conversion gradient most likely explain the observed decrease of GC-ending codons with gene length and gene position.

GC-biased gene conversion; optimal codon use; cause of correlation