Is Mutation Random or Targeted?: No Evidence for Hypermutability in Snail Toxin Genes

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Ever since Luria and Delbruck, the notion that mutation is random with respect to fitness has been foundational to modern biology. However, various studies have claimed striking exceptions to this rule. One influential case involves toxin-encoding genes in snails of the genus Conus, termed conotoxins, a large gene family that undergoes rapid diversification of their protein-coding sequences by positive selection. Previous reconstructions of the sequence evolution of conotoxin genes claimed striking patterns: (1) elevated synonymous change, interpreted as being due to targeted “hypermutation” in this region; (2) elevated transversion-to-transition ratios, interpreted as reflective of the particular mechanism of hypermutation; and (3) much lower rates of synonymous change in the codons encoding several highly conserved cysteine residues, interpreted as strong position-specific codon bias. This work has spawned a variety of studies on the potential mechanisms of hypermutation and on causes for cysteine codon bias, and has inspired hypermutation hypotheses for various other fast-evolving genes. Here, I show that all three findings are likely to be artifacts of statistical reconstruction. First, by simulating nonsynonymous change I show that high rates of dN can lead to overestimation of dS. Second, I show that there is no evidence for any of these three patterns in comparisons of closely related conotoxin sequences, suggesting that the reported findings are due to breakdown of statistical methods at high levels of sequence divergence. The current findings suggest that mutation and codon bias in conotoxin genes may not be atypical, and that random mutation and selection can explain the evolution of even these exceptional loci.

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