The evolution of the main regulatory region (D-loop) of the mammalian mitochondrial genome was analyzed by comparing the sequences of eight mammalian species: human, common chimpanzee, pygmy chimpanzee, dolphin, cow, rat, mouse, and rabbit. The best alignment of the sequences was obtained by optimization of the sequence similarities common to all these species.
The two peripheral left and right D-loop domains, which contain the main regulatory elements so far discovered, evolved rapidly in a species-specific manner generating heterogeneity in both length and base composition. They are prone to the insertion and deletion of elements and to the generation of short repeats by replication slippage. However, the preservation of some sequence blocks and similar cloverleaf-like structures in these regions, indicates a basic similarity in the regulatory mechanisms of the mitochondrial genome in all mammalian species.
We found, particularly in the right domain, significant similarities to the telomeric sequences of the mitochondrial (mt) and nuclear DNA ofTetrahymena thermophila. These sequences may be interpreted as relics of telomeres present in ancestral linear forms of mtDNA or may simply represent efficient templates of RNA primase-like enzymes.
Due to their peculiar evolution, the two peripheral domains cannot be used to estimate in a quantitative way the genetic distances between mammalian species. On the other hand the central domain, highly conserved during evolution, behaves as a good molecular clock.
Reliable estimates of the times of divergence between closely and distantly related species were obtained from the central domain using a Markov model and assuming nonhomogeneous evolution of nucleotide sites.
Mammalian mitochondrial DNAOrigin of replicationMitochondrial DNA evolutionStationary Markov modelPhylogenetic treeTelomeresD-loopRegulatory region