University of Tasmania

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Geological Dates and Molecular Rates: Fish DNA Sheds Light on Time Dependency

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 00:51 authored by Christopher BurridgeChristopher Burridge, Craw, D, Fletcher, D, Waters, JM
Knowledge of DNA evolution is central to our understanding of biological history, but how fast does DNA change? Previously, pedigree and ancient DNA studies—focusing on evolution in the short term—have yielded molecular rate estimates substantially faster than those based on deeper phylogenies. It has recently been suggested that short-term, elevated molecular rates decay exponentially over 1–2 Myr to long-term, phylogenetic rates, termed ‘‘time dependency of molecular rates.’’ This transition has potential to confound molecular inferences of demographic parameters and dating of many important evolutionary events. Here, we employ a novel approach—geologically dated changes in river drainages and isolation of fish populations—to document rates of mitochondrial DNA change over a range of temporal scales. This method utilizes precise spatiotemporal disruptions of linear freshwater systems and hence avoids many of the limitations associated with typical DNA calibration methods involving fossil data or island formation. Studies of freshwater-limited fishes across the South Island of New Zealand have revealed that genetic relationships reflect past, rather than present, drainage connections. Here, we use this link between drainage geology and genetics to calibrate rates of molecular evolution across nine events ranging in age from 0.007 Myr (Holocene) to 5.0 Myr (Pliocene). Molecular rates of change in galaxiid fishes from calibration points younger than 200 kyr were faster than those based on older calibration points. This study provides conclusive evidence of time dependency in molecular rates as it is based on a robust calibration system that was applied to closely related taxa, and analyzed using a consistent and rigorous methodology. The time dependency observed here appears short-lived relative to previous suggestions (1–2 Myr), which has bearing on the accuracy of molecular inferences drawn from processes operating within the Quaternary and mechanisms invoked to explain the decay of rates with time.


Publication title

Molecular Biology and Evolution










School of Natural Sciences


Sir Publishing

Place of publication

Po Box 399, Wellington, New Zealand

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The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available online at:

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Expanding knowledge in the biological sciences

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