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The quality of phylogenetic inference made from protein-coding genes depends, in part, on the realism with which the codon substitution process is modeled. Here we propose a new mechanistic model that combines the standard M0 substitution model of Yang (1997) with a simplified model from Gilchrist (2007) that includes selection on synonymous substitutions as a function of codon-specific nonsense error rates. We tested the newly proposed model by applying it to 104 protein-coding genes in brewer's yeast, and compared the fit of the new model to the standard M0 model and to the mutation-selection model of Yang and Nielsen (2008) using the AIC.
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Based on the rates of synonymous substitution in 42 protein-coding gene pairs from rat and human, a correlation is shown to exist between the frequency of the nucleotides in all positions of the codon and the synonymous substitution rate. The correlation coefficients were positive for A and T and negative for C and G. This means that AT-rich genes accumulate more synonymous substitutions than GC-rich genes.

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A mechanistic codon substitution model, in which each codon substitution rate is proportional to the product of a codon mutation rate and the average fixation probability depending on the type of amino acid replacement, has advantages over nucleotide, amino acid, and empirical codon substitution models in evolutionary analysis of protein-coding sequences. It can approximate a wide range of codon substitution processes. If no selection pressure on amino acids is taken into account, it will become equivalent to a nucleotide substitution model.

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Given the structure of the genetic code, synonymous codons differ in their capacity to minimize the effects of errors due to mutation or mistranslation. I suggest that this may lead, in protein-coding genes, to a preference for codons that minimize the impact of errors at the protein level. I develop a theoretical measure of error minimization for each codon, based on amino acid similarity.

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It has been shown previously that the synonymous substitution rate between Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium is lower in highly than in weakly expressed genes, and it has been suggested that this is due to stronger selection for translational efficiency in highly expressed genes as reflected in their greater codon usage bias. This hypothesis is tested here by comparing the substitution rate in codon families with different patterns of synonymous codon use. It is shown that the decline in the substitution rate across expression levels is as great for codon families that do not appear to be subject to selection for translational efficiency as for those that are.

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