Dolphin genome provides evidence for adaptive evolution of nervous system genes and a molecular rate slowdown

Michael R. McGowen, Lawrence I. Grossman, Derek E. Wildman


Cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have undergone a radical transformation from the original mammalian bodyplan. In addition, some cetaceans have evolved large brains and complex cognitive capacities. We compared approximately 10 000 protein-coding genes culled from the bottlenose dolphin genome with nine other genomes to reveal molecular correlates of the remarkable phenotypic features of these aquatic mammals. Evolutionary analyses demonstrated that the overall synonymous substitution rate in dolphins has slowed compared with other studied mammals, and is within the range of primates and elephants. We also discovered 228 genes potentially under positive selection (dN/dS > 1) in the dolphin lineage. Twenty-seven of these genes are associated with the nervous system, including those related to human intellectual disabilities, synaptic plasticity and sleep. In addition, genes expressed in the mitochondrion have a significantly higher mean dN/dS ratio in the dolphin lineage than others examined, indicating evolution in energy metabolism. We encountered selection in other genes potentially related to cetacean adaptations such as glucose and lipid metabolism, dermal and lung development, and the cardiovascular system. This study underlines the parallel molecular trajectory of cetaceans with other mammalian groups possessing large brains.

  • Received April 18, 2012.
  • Accepted June 1, 2012.
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