, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 92-102

Mitochondrial DNA evolution in lagomorphs: Origin of systematic heteroplasmy and organization of diversity in European rabbits

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A characterization was conducted on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) molecules extracted separately from 107 European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) both wild and domestic, 13 European hares (Lepus capensis), and 1 eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Experimentally this study took into account restriction site polymorphism, overall length variation of the noncoding region, and numbers of repeated sequences. Nucleotide divergences indicate that the mtDNAs from the three species derived from a common ancestor some 6–8 million years (Myr) ago. Every animal appeared heteroplasmic for a set of molecules with various lengths of the noncoding region and variable numbers of repeated sequences that contribute to them. This systematic heteroplasmy, most probably generated by a rate of localized mtDNA rearrangements high enough to counterbalance the cellular segregation of rearranged molecules, is a shared derived character of leporids.

The geographic distribution of mtDNA polymorphism among wild rabbit populations over the western European basin shows that two molecular lineages are represented, one in southern Spain, the second over northern Spain, France, and Tunisia. These two lineages derived from a common ancestor some 2 Myr ago. Their present geographical distribution may be correlated to the separation of rabbits into two stocks at the time of Mindel glaciation.

Finally the distribution of mtDNA diversity exhibits a mosaic pattern both at inter- and intrapopulation levels.