Variation in Evolutionary Processes at Different Codon Positions

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Evolutionary studies commonly model single nucleotide substitutions and assume that they occur as independent draws from a unique probability distribution across the sequence studied. This assumption is violated for protein-coding sequences, and we consider modeling approaches where codon positions (CPs) are treated as separate categories of sites because within each category the assumption is more reasonable. Such “codon-position” models have been shown to explain the evolution of codon data better than homogenous models in previous studies. This paper examines the ways in which codon-position models outperform homogeneous models and characterizes the differences in estimates of model parameters across CPs. Using the PANDIT database of multiple species DNA sequence alignments, we quantify the differences in the evolutionary processes at the 3 CPs in a systematic and comprehensive manner, characterizing previously undescribed features of protein evolution. We relate our findings to the functional constraints imposed by the genetic code, protein function, and the types of mutation that cause synonymous and nonsynonymous codon changes. The results increase our understanding of selective constraints and could be incorporated into phylogenetic analyses or gene-finding techniques in the future. The methods used are extended to an overlapping reading frame data set, and we discover that overlapping reading frames do not necessarily cause more stringent evolutionary constraints.

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