Mutation accumulation in transfer RNAs: Molecular evidence for Muller's ratchet in mitochondrial genomes

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174 Scopus citations


The accumulation of deleterious mutations is thought to be a major factor preventing the long-term persistence of obligately asexual lineages relative to their sexual ancestors. This phenomenon is also of potential relevance to sexual species that harbor asexually propagating organelle genomes. A comparative study of the transfer RNA genes in animal mitochondrial and nuclear genomes demonstrates that the former accumulate nucleotide substitutions much more rapidly than do the latter, and several lines of evidence are consistent with the idea that the excess substitutions are mildly deleterious. First, the average binding stability between complementary strands in the stems of mitochondrial tRNAs is less than half that in nuclear tRNAs. Second, most loop sizes in the mitochondrial tRNAs have experienced a net reduction in size over evolutionary time, and they are nearly 50 times more variable in the mitochondrial than in the nuclear genome. Third, although nearly 20% of the nucleotides in nuclear tRNA genes (particularly those involved in tertiary interactions) are invariant across all animal taxa and all tRNA species, there are no invariant sites in the mitochondrial tRNAs. These observations, as well as results from recent laboratory experiments, are consistent with the hypothesis that nonrecombining organelle genomes are subject to gradual loss of fitness due to the cumulative chance fixation of mildly deleterious mutations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-220
Number of pages12
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Muller's ratchet
  • deleterious mutation
  • insertion/deletion rate
  • mitochondrial genome
  • substitution rate
  • transfer RNA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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