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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The erratic mitochondrial clock: variations of mutation rate, not population size, affect mtDNA diversity across birds and mammals

Benoit Nabholz*, Sylvain Glémin and Nicolas Galtier

Author Affiliations

Université Montpellier 2 CNRS UMR 5554 – Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution Place E. Bataillon – CC064, 34095 Montpellier, France

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:54  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-54

Published: 10 March 2009



During the last ten years, major advances have been made in characterizing and understanding the evolution of mitochondrial DNA, the most popular marker of molecular biodiversity. Several important results were recently reported using mammals as model organisms, including (i) the absence of relationship between mitochondrial DNA diversity and life-history or ecological variables, (ii) the absence of prominent adaptive selection, contrary to what was found in invertebrates, and (iii) the unexpectedly large variation in neutral substitution rate among lineages, revealing a possible link with species maximal longevity. We propose to challenge these results thanks to the bird/mammal comparison. Direct estimates of population size are available in birds, and this group presents striking life-history trait differences with mammals (higher mass-specific metabolic rate and longevity). These properties make birds the ideal model to directly test for population size effects, and to discriminate between competing hypotheses about the causes of substitution rate variation.


A phylogenetic analysis of cytochrome b third-codon position confirms that the mitochondrial DNA mutation rate is quite variable in birds, passerines being the fastest evolving order. On average, mitochondrial DNA evolves slower in birds than in mammals of similar body size. This result is in agreement with the longevity hypothesis, and contradicts the hypothesis of a metabolic rate-dependent mutation rate. Birds show no footprint of adaptive selection on cytochrome b evolutionary patterns, but no link between direct estimates of population size and cytochrome b diversity. The mutation rate is the best predictor we have of within-species mitochondrial diversity in birds. It partly explains the differences in mitochondrial DNA diversity patterns observed between mammals and birds, previously interpreted as reflecting Hill-Robertson interferences with the W chromosome.


Mitochondrial DNA diversity patterns in birds are strongly influenced by the wide, unexpected variation of mutation rate across species. From a fundamental point of view, these results are strongly consistent with a relationship between species maximal longevity and mitochondrial mutation rate, in agreement with the mitochondrial theory of ageing. Form an applied point of view, this study reinforces and extends the message of caution previously expressed for mammals: mitochondrial data tell nothing about species population sizes, and strongly depart the molecular clock assumption.