Functional Recurrent Mutations in the Human Mitochondrial Phylogeny - Dual Roles in Evolution and Disease Academic Article uri icon


  • Mutations frequently reoccur in the human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). However, it is unclear whether recurrent mtDNA nodal mutations (RNMs), that is, recurrent mutations in stems of unrelated phylogenetic nodes, are functional and hence selectively constrained. To answer this question, we performed comprehensive parsimony and maximum likelihood analyses of 9,868 publicly available whole human mtDNAs revealing 1,606 single nodal mutations (SNMs) and 679 RNMs. We then evaluated the potential functionality of synonymous, nonsynonymous and RNA SNMs and RNMs. For synonymous mutations, we have implemented the Codon Adaptation Index. For nonsynonymous mutations, we assessed evolutionary conservation, and employed previously described pathogenicity score assessment tools. For RNA genes’ mutations, we designed a bioinformatic tool which compiled evolutionary conservation and potential effect on RNA structure. While comparing the functionality scores of nonsynonymous and RNA SNMs and RNMs with those of disease-causing mtDNA mutations, we found significant difference (P < 0.001). However, 24 RNMs and 67 SNMs had comparable values with disease-causing mutations reflecting their potential function thus being the best candidates to participate in adaptive events of unrelated lineages. Strikingly, some functional RNMs occurred in unrelated mtDNA lineages that independently altered susceptibility to the same diseases, thus suggesting common functionality. To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive analysis of selective signatures in the mtDNA not only within proteins but also within RNA genes. For the first time, we discover virtually all positively selected RNMs in our phylogeny while emphasizing their dual role in past evolutionary events and in disease today.

publication date

  • January 1, 2013