DNA Barcoding Works in Practice but Not in (Neutral) Theory

Stoeckle, Mark Y.; Thaler, David S.


DNA barcode differences within animal species are usually much less than differences among species, making it generally straightforward to match unknowns to a reference library. Here we aim to better understand the evolutionary mechanisms underlying this usual “barcode gap” pattern. We employ avian barcode libraries to test a central prediction of neutral theory, namely, intraspecific variation equals 2 Nµ, where N is population size and µ is mutations per site per generation. Birds are uniquely suited for this task: they have the best-known species limits, are well represented in barcode libraries, and, most critically, are the only large group with documented census population sizes. In addition, we ask if mitochondrial molecular clock measurements conform to neutral theory prediction of clock rate equals µ.


Intraspecific COI barcode variation was uniformly low regardless of census population size (n = 142 species in 15 families). Apparent outliers reflected lumping of reproductively isolated populations or hybrid lineages. Re-analysis of a published survey of cytochrome b variation in diverse birds (n = 93 species in 39 families) further confirmed uniformly low intraspecific variation. Hybridization/gene flow among species/populations was the main limitation to DNA barcode identification.


To our knowledge, this is the first large study of animal mitochondrial diversity using actual census population sizes and the first to test outliers for population structure. Our finding of universally low intraspecific variation contradicts a central prediction of neutral theory and is not readily accounted for by commonly proposed ad hoc modifications. We argue that the weight of evidence–low intraspecific variation and the molecular clock–indicates neutral evolution plays a minor role in mitochondrial sequence evolution. As an alternate paradigm consistent with empirical data, we propose extreme purifying selection, including at synonymous sites, limits variation within species and continuous adaptive selection drives the molecular clock.


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October 13, 2016