Are Synonymous Sites in Primates and Rodents Functionally Constrained?

Nicholas Price*, Dan Graur

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


It has been claimed that synonymous sites in mammals are under selective constraint. Furthermore, in many studies the selective constraint at such sites in primates was claimed to be more stringent than that in rodents. Given the larger effective population sizes in rodents than in primates, the theoretical expectation is that selection in rodents would be more effective than that in primates. To resolve this contradiction between expectations and observations, we used processed pseudogenes as a model for strict neutral evolution, and estimated selective constraint on synonymous sites using the rate of substitution at pseudosynonymous and pseudononsynonymous sites in pseudogenes as the neutral expectation. After controlling for the effects of GC content, our results were similar to those from previous studies, i.e., synonymous sites in primates exhibited evidence for higher selective constraint that those in rodents. Specifically, our results indicated that in primates up to 24 % of synonymous sites could be under purifying selection, while in rodents synonymous sites evolved neutrally. To further control for shifts in GC content, we estimated selective constraint at fourfold degenerate sites using a maximum parsimony approach. This allowed us to estimate selective constraint using mutational patterns that cause a shift in GC content (GT ↔ TG, CT ↔ TC, GA ↔ AG, and CA ↔ AC) and ones that do not (AT ↔ TA and CG ↔ GC). Using this approach, we found that synonymous sites evolve neutrally in both primates and rodents. Apparent deviations from neutrality were caused by a higher rate of C → A and C → T mutations in pseudogenes. Such differences are most likely caused by the shift in GC content experienced by pseudogenes. We conclude that previous estimates according to which 20–40 % of synonymous sites in primates were under selective constraint were most likely artifacts of the biased pattern of mutation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-64
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Effective population size
  • Selective constraint
  • Synonymous sites


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