Conservation and Divergence in Multigene Families: Alternatives to Selection and Drift

G. A. Dover, D. Tautz


It is generally assumed that conservation and divergence of DNA signify function (selection) and no function (drift), respectively. This assumption is based on the view that a mutation is a unique event on a single chromosome, the fate of which depends on selection or drift. Knowledge of the rates, units and biases of widespread mechanisms of non-reciprocal DNA exchange, in particular within multigene families, provides alternative explanations for conservation and divergence, notwithstanding biological function. Such mechanisms of DNA turnover cause continual fluctuations in the copy-number of variant genes in an individual and, hence, promote the gradual and cohesive spread of a variant gene throughout a family (homogenization) and throughout a population (fixation). The dual processes (molecular drive) of homogenization and fixation are inextricably linked. Data are presented of the expected stages of transition in the spread of variant repeats by molecular drive in some non-genic families of DNA, seemingly not under the influence of selection. When a molecularly driven change in a given gene family is accompanied by the coevolution (mediated by selection) of other DNA, RNA or protein molecules that interact with the gene family then biological function is observed to be maintained despite sequence divergence. Conversely, the mechanics of DNA turnover and a turnover bias in favour of ancestral sequences can dramatically retard the rate of sequence change, in the absence of function. Examples of the maintenance of function by molecular coevolution and conservation of sequences in the absence of function, are drawn mainly from the rDNA multigene family.