Big data analysis of human mitochondrial DNA substitution models: A regression approach

Keren Levinstein Hallak, Shay Tzur, Saharon Rosset*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Background: We study Phylotree, a comprehensive representation of the phylogeny of global human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variations, to better understand the mtDNA substitution mechanism and its most influential factors. We consider a substitution model, where a set of genetic features may predict the rate at which mtDNA substitutions occur. To find an appropriate model, an exhaustive analysis on the effect of multiple factors on the substitution rate is performed through Negative Binomial and Poisson regressions. We examine three different inclusion options for each categorical factor: omission, inclusion as an explanatory variable, and by-value partitioning. The examined factors include genes, codon position, a CpG indicator, directionality, nucleotide, amino acid, codon, and context (neighboring nucleotides), in addition to other site based factors. Partitioning a model by a factor's value results in several sub-models (one for each value), where the likelihoods of the sub-models can be combined to form a score for the entire model. Eventually, the leading models are considered as viable candidates for explaining mtDNA substitution rates. Results: Initially, we introduce a novel clustering technique on genes, based on three similarity tests between pairs of genes, supporting previous results regarding gene functionalities in the mtDNA. These clusters are then used as a factor in our models. We present leading models for the protein coding genes, rRNA and tRNA genes and the control region, showing it is disadvantageous to separate the models of transitions/transversions, or synonymous/non-synonymous substitutions. We identify a context effect that cannot be attributed solely to protein level constraints or CpG pairs. For protein-coding genes, we show that the substitution model should be partitioned into sub-models according to the codon position and input codon; additionally we confirm that gene identity and cluster have no significant effect once the above factors are accounted for. Conclusions: We leverage the large, high-confidence Phylotree mtDNA phylogeny to develop a new statistical approach. We model the substitution rates using regressions, allowing consideration of many factors simultaneously. This admits the use of model selection tools helping to identify the set of factors best explaining the mutational dynamics when considered in tandem.

Original languageEnglish
Article number759
JournalBMC Genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 19 Oct 2018


  • Context
  • Mitochondrial DNA
  • Partitioning
  • Regression
  • Substitution models


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