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Rates of molecular evolution and diversification in plants: chloroplast substitution rates correlate with species-richness in the Proteaceae

David Duchene* and Lindell Bromham

Author Affiliations

Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, Evolution, Ecology & Genetics, Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, 0200, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:65  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-65

Published: 13 March 2013



Many factors have been identified as correlates of the rate of molecular evolution, such as body size and generation length. Analysis of many molecular phylogenies has also revealed correlations between substitution rates and clade size, suggesting a link between rates of molecular evolution and the process of diversification. However, it is not known whether this relationship applies to all lineages and all sequences. Here, in order to investigate how widespread this phenomenon is, we investigate patterns of substitution in chloroplast genomes of the diverse angiosperm family Proteaceae. We used DNA sequences from six chloroplast genes (6278bp alignment with 62 taxa) to test for a correlation between diversification and the rate of substitutions.


Using phylogenetically-independent sister pairs, we show that species-rich lineages of Proteaceae tend to have significantly higher chloroplast substitution rates, for both synonymous and non-synonymous substitutions.


We show that the rate of molecular evolution in chloroplast genomes is correlated with net diversification rates in this large plant family. We discuss the possible causes of this relationship, including molecular evolution driving diversification, speciation increasing the rate of substitutions, or a third factor causing an indirect link between molecular and diversification rates. The link between the synonymous substitution rate and clade size is consistent with a role for the mutation rate of chloroplasts driving the speed of reproductive isolation. We find no significant differences in the ratio of non-synonymous to synonymous substitutions between lineages differing in net diversification rate, therefore we detect no signal of population size changes or alteration in selection pressures that might be causing this relationship.

Phylogenetic; Substitution; Comparative analysis; Synonymous; Nonsynonymous; dN/dS; Reproductive isolation; Incompatibility