A Combined Empirical and Mechanistic Codon Model

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Abstract

The evolutionary selection forces acting on a protein are commonly inferred using evolutionary codon models by contrasting the rate of synonymous to nonsynonymous substitutions. Most widely used models are based on theoretical assumptions and ignore the empirical observation that distinct amino acids differ in their replacement rates. In this paper, we develop a general method that allows assimilation of empirical amino acid replacement probabilities into a codon-substitution matrix. In this way, the resulting codon model takes into account not only the transition–transversion bias and the nonsynonymous/synonymous ratio, but also the different amino acid replacement probabilities as specified in empirical amino acid matrices. Different empirical amino acid replacement matrices, such as secondary structure–specific matrices or organelle-specific matrices (e.g., mitochondria and chloroplasts), can be incorporated into the model, making it context dependent. Using a diverse set of coding DNA sequences, we show that the novel model better fits biological data as compared with either mechanistic or empirical codon models. Using the suggested model, we further analyze human immunodeficiency virus type 1 protease sequences obtained from drug-treated patients and reveal positive selection in sites that are known to confer drug resistance to the virus.

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