, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 227-233,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 17 Sep 2010

Genome Size and Species Diversification


Theoretically, there are reasons to believe that large genome size should favour speciation. Several major factors contributing to genome size, such as duplications and transposable element activity have been proposed to facilitate the formation of new species. However, it is also possible that small genome size promotes speciation. For example, selection for genome reduction may be resolved in different ways in incipient species, leading to incompatibilities. Mutations and chromosomal rearrangements may also be more stably inherited in smaller genomes. Here I review the following lines of empirical evidence bearing on this question: (i) Correlations between genome size and species richness of taxa are often negative. (ii) Fossil evidence in lungfish shows that the accumulation of DNA in the genomes of this group coincided with a reduction in species diversity. (iii) Estimates of speciation interval in mammals correlate positively with genome size. (iv) Genome reductions are inferred at the base of particular species radiations and genome expansions at the base of others. (v) Insect clades that have been increasing in diversity up to the present have smaller genomes than clades that have remained stable or have decreased in diversity. The general pattern emerging from these observations is that higher diversification rates are generally found in small-genome taxa. Since diversification rates are the net effect of speciation and extinction, large genomes may thus either constrain speciation rate, increase extinction rate, or both. I argue that some of the cited examples are unlikely to be explained by extinction alone.