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Open Access Research article

Relationship between mRNA secondary structure and sequence variability in Chloroplast genes: possible life history implications

Neeraja M Krishnan1, Hervé Seligmann23 and Basuthkar J Rao1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, 1 Homi Bhabha road, Colaba, Mumbai 400005, India

2 Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91904, Israel

3 Department of Life Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 84105 Beer Sheva, Israel

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:48  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-48

Published: 28 January 2008



Synonymous sites are freer to vary because of redundancy in genetic code. Messenger RNA secondary structure restricts this freedom, as revealed by previous findings in mitochondrial genes that mutations at third codon position nucleotides in helices are more selected against than those in loops. This motivated us to explore the constraints imposed by mRNA secondary structure on evolutionary variability at all codon positions in general, in chloroplast systems.


We found that the evolutionary variability and intrinsic secondary structure stability of these sequences share an inverse relationship. Simulations of most likely single nucleotide evolution in Psilotum nudum and Nephroselmis olivacea mRNAs, indicate that helix-forming propensities of mutated mRNAs are greater than those of the natural mRNAs for short sequences and vice-versa for long sequences. Moreover, helix-forming propensity estimated by the percentage of total mRNA in helices increases gradually with mRNA length, saturating beyond 1000 nucleotides. Protection levels of functionally important sites vary across plants and proteins: r-strategists minimize mutation costs in large genes; K-strategists do the opposite.


Mrna length presumably predisposes shorter mRNAs to evolve under different constraints than longer mRNAs. The positive correlation between secondary structure protection and functional importance of sites suggests that some sites might be conserved due to packing-protection constraints at the nucleic acid level in addition to protein level constraints. Consequently, nucleic acid secondary structure a priori biases mutations. The converse (exposure of conserved sites) apparently occurs in a smaller number of cases, indicating a different evolutionary adaptive strategy in these plants. The differences between the protection levels of functionally important sites for r- and K-strategists reflect their respective molecular adaptive strategies. These converge with increasing domestication levels of K-strategists, perhaps because domestication increases reproductive output.