Correcting for Purifying Selection: An Improved Human Mitochondrial Molecular Clock

Pedro Soares, Luca Ermini, Noel Thomson, Maru Mormina, Teresa Rito, Arne Röhl, Antonio Salas, Stephen Oppenheimer, Vincent Macaulay, Martin B. Richards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

568 Citations (Scopus)


There is currently no calibration available for the whole human mtDNA genome, incorporating both coding and control regions. Furthermore, as several authors have pointed out recently, linear molecular clocks that incorporate selectable characters are in any case problematic. We here confirm a modest effect of purifying selection on the mtDNA coding region and propose an improved molecular clock for dating human mtDNA, based on a worldwide phylogeny of > 2000 complete mtDNA genomes and calibrating against recent evidence for the divergence time of humans and chimpanzees. We focus on a time-dependent mutation rate based on the entire mtDNA genome and supported by a neutral clock based on synonymous mutations alone. We show that the corrected rate is further corroborated by archaeological dating for the settlement of the Canary Islands and Remote Oceania and also, given certain phylogeographic assumptions, by the timing of the first modern human settlement of Europe and resettlement after the Last Glacial Maximum. The corrected rate yields an age of modern human expansion in the Americas at ∼15 kya that-unlike the uncorrected clock-matches the archaeological evidence, but continues to indicate an out-of-Africa dispersal at around 55-70 kya, 5-20 ky before any clear archaeological record, suggesting the need for archaeological research efforts focusing on this time window. We also present improved rates for the mtDNA control region, and the first comprehensive estimates of positional mutation rates for human mtDNA, which are essential for defining mutation models in phylogenetic analyses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)740-759
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Genetics
Issue number6
Early online date4 Jun 2009
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2009
Externally publishedYes


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