Estimate of the Mutation Rate per Nucleotide in Humans
Michael W. Nachman, Susan L. Crowell

Abstract

Many previous estimates of the mutation rate in humans have relied on screens of visible mutants. We investigated the rate and pattern of mutations at the nucleotide level by comparing pseudogenes in humans and chimpanzees to (i) provide an estimate of the average mutation rate per nucleotide, (ii) assess heterogeneity of mutation rate at different sites and for different types of mutations, (iii) test the hypothesis that the X chromosome has a lower mutation rate than autosomes, and (iv) estimate the deleterious mutation rate. Eighteen processed pseudogenes were sequenced, including 12 on autosomes and 6 on the X chromosome. The average mutation rate was estimated to be ~2.5 × 10−8 mutations per nucleotide site or 175 mutations per diploid genome per generation. Rates of mutation for both transitions and transversions at CpG dinucleotides are one order of magnitude higher than mutation rates at other sites. Single nucleotide substitutions are 10 times more frequent than length mutations. Comparison of rates of evolution for X-linked and autosomal pseudogenes suggests that the male mutation rate is 4 times the female mutation rate, but provides no evidence for a reduction in mutation rate that is specific to the X chromosome. Using conservative calculations of the proportion of the genome subject to purifying selection, we estimate that the genomic deleterious mutation rate (U) is at least 3. This high rate is difficult to reconcile with multiplicative fitness effects of individual mutations and suggests that synergistic epistasis among harmful mutations may be common.

  • Received July 24, 1999.
  • Accepted May 19, 2000.
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