A simple method for estimating the intensity of purifying selection in protein-coding genes.
We propose a method by which the intensity of purifying selection on a functional protein-coding gene is estimated by using three aligned homologous sequences: a processed pseudogene (psi), a functional paralog from the same species (g), and a functional ortholog from a different species (o). For each such trio, we calculate the numbers of nucleotide substitutions along the branches leading to psi and g, i.e., K psi and K(g). If we assume that the mutation rates are the same in the genes and the pseudogenes and that mutations occurring in a pseudogene do not affect the fitness of the organism, we can show that the fraction of mutations that are selectively neutral, fg, is equal to the ratio K(g)/K psi. Since advantageous mutations occur only very rarely, such that they do not contribute significantly to the rate of molecular evolution, the fraction of deleterious mutations that are subject to purifying selection is 1-fg. Therefore, the K(g)/K psi ratio can be used directly to estimate the intensity of purifying selection, thereby isolating its effects on the rate of evolution from those of mutation. We compared the selection intensities of 12 orthologous protein-coding pairs from humans and murids. As expected, the fraction of mutations that are subject to purifying selection is strongest in the second codon position and weakest in the third. Interestingly, the mean fractions of effectively neutral mutations in the third codon position were only 41% and 42% for murids and humans, respectively, indicating that many synonymous mutations are subject to selective constraint. In several orthologous genes, we found that the intensity of purifying selection is very different between murid and human orthologous genes. There was no statistically significant difference in overall intensity of purifying selection between humans and murids. Thus, purifying selection does not seem to be an important factor contributing to the observed differences in the rates of evolution between these two taxa.