How clonal are human mitochondria?

Adam Eyre–Walker, Noel H. Smith, John Maynard Smith

Abstract

Phylogenetic trees constructed using human mitochondrial sequences contain a large number of homoplasies. These are due either to repeated mutation or to recombination between mitochondrial lineages. We show that a tree constructed using synonymous variation in the protein coding sequences of 29 largely complete human mitochondrial molecules contains 22 homoplasies at 32 phylogenetically informative sites. This level of homoplasy is very unlikely if inheritance is clonal, even if we take into account base composition bias. There must either be ‘hypervariable’ sites or recombination between mitochondria. We present evidence which suggests that hypervariable sites do not exist in our data. It therefore seems likely that recombination has occurred between mitochondrial lineages in humans.