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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Low number of mitochondrial pseudogenes in the chicken (Gallus gallus) nuclear genome: implications for molecular inference of population history and phylogenetics

Sérgio L Pereira1* and Allan J Baker2

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Biology – Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park, Toronto, ON, M5S 2C6 Canada

2 Department of Zoology, University of Toronto, Toronto ON, M5S 1A1, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2004, 4:17  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-4-17

Published: 25 June 2004



Mitochondrial DNA has been detected in the nuclear genome of eukaryotes as pseudogenes, or Numts. Human and plant genomes harbor a large number of Numts, some of which have high similarity to mitochondrial fragments and thus may have been inadvertently included in population genetic and phylogenetic studies using mitochondrial DNA. Birds have smaller genomes relative to mammals, and the genome-wide frequency and distribution of Numts is still unknown. The release of a preliminary version of the chicken (Gallus gallus) genome by the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University, St. Louis provided an opportunity to search this first avian genome for the frequency and characteristics of Numts relative to those in human and plants.


We detected at least 13 Numts in the chicken nuclear genome. Identities between Numts and mitochondrial sequences varied from 58.6 to 88.8%. Fragments ranged from 131 to 1,733 nucleotides, collectively representing only 0.00078% of the nuclear genome. Because fewer Numts were detected in the chicken nuclear genome, they do not represent all regions of the mitochondrial genome and are not widespread in all chromosomes. Nuclear integrations in chicken seem to occur by a DNA intermediate and in regions of low gene density, especially in macrochromosomes.


The number of Numts in chicken is low compared to those in human and plant genomes, and is within the range found for most sequenced eukaryotic genomes. For chicken, PCR amplifications of fragments of about 1.5 kilobases are highly likely to represent true mitochondrial amplification. Sequencing of these fragments should expose the presence of unusual features typical of pseudogenes, unless the nuclear integration is very recent and has not yet been mutated. Metabolic selection for compact genomes with reduced repetitive DNA and gene-poor regions where Numts occur may explain their low incidence in birds.